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The weird world of body modification

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Seeing Apocalypto and its cast of dentally-bejeweled and cranially-reshaped Mayans got me thinking about body modification nowadays -- how far have we come since then? Perhaps that's a matter of opinion, so take a look at some of these contemporary body mods and tell us what you think.

Extraocular implant

An extraocular implant is a cosmetic implant involving a tiny piece of decorative jewelry which is implanted within the superficial, interpalpebral conjunctiva of the human eye. This procedure was developed in 2002 by the Netherlands Institute for Innovative Ocular Surgery and is marketed there under the name JewelEye. The procedure is completely legal in the Netherlands, as long as it is performed by a licensed ophthalmologist under sterile conditions. (But somehow, its being "completely legal in the Netherlands" doesn't make me feel any less squeamish about it.)

Breast ironing
As much as this reminds us of female genital mutilation, the women of Cameroon who do this to their daughters do it for a supposedly altruistic reason: to protect the girls from early marriage or, worse, rape. The breasts are flattened in an attempt to make them less sexually attractive, and the grisly thing is that there's no one way to do it -- some practitioners use hot irons, others grinding stones, pestles or belts. A recent study by a German NGO has found that one in four Cameroonian women have undergone the modification, which has probably contributed to elevated levels of breast cancer in that country.

Neck elongation


A dying tradition among some Southeast Asian and African women (notably the Padung people), these so-called "giraffe women" begin adorning their necks with heavy coils at five years old, which are augmented until they weigh up to 11 pounds. Various origins of the custom are cited, ranging from protection against tiger attacks to symbols of wealth and status, but nowadays the Padung work foremost as tourist attractions. (Before a recent police raid, there had been charges the exotic tribespeople on show were being held virtual prisoners by Thai entrepreneurs. Most of the Padaung are in three border camps in the northwestern province of Mae Hong Son. An estimated 10,000 Thais and foreigners visit those camps each year, paying an entrance fee that allows them to photograph and mingle with the smiling, colorfully attired long-necked women and girls.)

This technique uses scar tissue produced by the body to form designs, pictures, or words in the skin. Scars are most often formed by cutting or branding the skin. Therefore, unlike tattoos, scarifications are a product of one's own body. Of course, scarification isn't nearly as popular as tattooing, so if you're looking into it, you'll really have to search to find someone qualified to do it. (Mental_floss tip of the day: your frat buddy who bends metal clothes hangers into greek letters and heats them on the stovetop? He's probably not qualified.)

Tongue forking
The tongue is divided from the tip toward the back of the tongue for about 3 to 5 cm (1-2 inches), according to patient preference. The result is a bisected tongue, not unlike that of a lizard's. Who on earth would ever have something like this done? Just ask Eric "the Lizardman" Sprague, who also sports sharpened teeth and full-body green scale tattoos.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]