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50 Reasons to Subscribe to mental_floss (#47, How to be a Superhero revealed!)

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fanned mags.jpgWith the holidays just a few months away, we're sifting through 6 years of print archives and give you a smattering of the best of the _floss. If you dig what you see, subscribe here. Today, we're presenting Chris Connolly's piece on a how to be a superhero in 5 easy surgeries (and procedures). Enjoy!


>Crazy arm surgeries, extreme flexibility, Super-hearing and more all after the jump...

by Chris Connolly
If you're old enough to read this magazine, then you're probably too old for any latent superhero powers to emerge. But don't despair! In the absence of radioactive spiders or vats of chemical ooze, there's always plain ol' science. You may not be able to shoot force beams from your eyes or hurl cars across the city, but a lot of people (namely athletes) are bypassing superhumanism for the next best thing: really-really-impressive humanism.With the following five-step program (and unfettered access to money and cutting-edge doctors), you can achieve it, too. Just remember, when some villain holds the world hostage with an earthquake ray, you have to save us first!
STEP 1. Get Re-Armed and Dangerous - TOMMY JOHN SURGERY
YOUR FIRST STOP ON THE TRAIN to More-Powerful-than-a-Locomotiveness is a procedure called ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction, which will give you the ability to throw objects with incredible force.

tommy_john_autograph.jpgAlthough it's now common to see baseball pitchers playing into their 40s, all that throwing used to take an early-retirement toll on the arm. The power generated when hurling a baseball is startling. At certain points during delivery, a pitcher's arm is moving approximately 7,000 degrees per second—the equivalent of rotating your arm all the way around 70,000 times an hour. Injuries caused by this unnatural stress used to end dozens of pitching careers. One of the most common and most dreaded of these maladies is known as "dead arm injury"—a medical term that's somewhat imprecise, except for what it meant to a player: Time to hang up the glove. In 1974, however, that all changed.

In that illustrious year, 31-year-old Los Angeles Dodger Tommy John decided that, despite a dead arm injury, he wasn't quite done pitching. So, he went to see the team's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, and asked if there were any procedures that could prolong his career. When Jobe said no, John told him to "make something up."

That "something" Dr. Jobe contrived was UCL reconstruction, which became commonly known as Tommy John Surgery. The now-routine operation involves taking a tendon from the wrist or hamstring and grafting it to the elbow. Holes are then drilled into the arm's humerus and ulna bones, and the new tendon is woven between them in a figure-eight pattern. After that, a long rehabilitation period is required so that the body has time to brainwash the tendon into thinking it's a ligament, allowing the athlete to rebuild strength. Although it took two surgeries and a full year of rehab, the procedure worked so well for Tommy John that he pitched for another 14 years.

These days, UCL reconstruction has been perfected to the point that many patients exit the operating room better than they went in. In fact, getting the procedure can often promise pitchers an 8 or 9 mph boost to their fastballs, meaning the Tommy John procedure isn't always about healing the injured as much as improving the intact. Of the Major League pitchers active in 2006, about 1 in 9 had undergone UCL surgery. Cubs starter Kerry Wood, who blew out his elbow in spring training following his sensational 1998 rookie season, used to max out around 95 mph. After the operation, however, he discovered he could reach the triple-digit mark.

The surgery alone isn't responsible for the recent rise in pitching speeds, though. The deliberate approach patients take to rebuilding arm strength is also a major factor. Still, if the ability to hurl a variety of objects at your megalomaniac foes sounds good to you, a few extra hours in the gym shouldn't stand in the way.

STEP 2. Achieve Gumby-like Flexibility - HYALURONAN INJECTIONS
gumby.bmp TO INCREASE YOUR FLEXIBILITY AND DURABILITY, the next medical treatment we recommend is viscosupplementation. Now, we're not saying you'll be able to flatten out and squeeze through prison bars, but it should place your bendiness well beyond the curve.

Simply put, viscosupplementation means injecting a super-lubricating substance called hyaluronan into selected joints. And because hyaluronan is a major component of synovial fluid, the process is becoming increasingly popular among arthritis sufferers and aging athletes alike. Baseball superstar Randy Johnson gets injections every six months and has all but admitted that without them he couldn't continue pitching.
Somewhat disgustingly, hyaluronan was first discovered in 1934 by Columbia University ophthalmology professor Karl Meyer as a substance in cow eyeballs. Meyer surmised that hyaluronan helped the eyeballs keep their shape and, due to its immense viscosity, suspected it could have some therapeutic benefits. Of course, draining cow eyeballs on a large scale wasn't considered an appealing prospect, and for the next several years, the testing of hyaluronan's salubrious properties was modest. Then Hungarian scientist Dr. Endre Balazs figured out how to extract the compound from—of all things—rooster combs.

We're not sure why juicing huge numbers of rooster combs was significantly less distasteful than juicing huge numbers of cow eyeballs, but the difference meant the world to researchers. Soon, doctors were using hyaluronan for everything from aiding veterinary eye surgeries to lubing up arthritic racehorses.

The benefits didn't extend to humans until after 1972, when Dr. Balazs licensed his developments to the Swedish company Pharmacia (now owned by Pfizer). With the drug giant pushing research, hyaluronan finally came into its own. Today, it's not only being used to extend the expiration dates of athletes, but also to prevent post-surgery scarring and even reduce the appearance of facial wrinkles, à la Botox.

If viscosupplementation wasn't already pushing the boundaries of superhero ethics, consider this supervillainish aside: In 2003, The New York Times reported that Pfizer had selectively bred a line of Swedish white leghorn roosters so weighed down by their enormous hyaluronan-producing combs that they could neither stand up nor support their heads.

STEP 3. Hear All Evil - "HEARWEAR"
ALTHOUGH IT'S NOT THE FLASHIEST OF SUPERPOWERS, superhearing is extremely useful when fighting crime. Fortunately, an array of devices were designed for the 2005-2006 "Future of Hearing" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, all of which just might do the trick.

First consider the Goldfish, a nifty gadget designed by a company called Human Beans. Mimicking fish (which are rumored to have a memory of about 10 seconds), the earbud records the last 10 seconds of any conversation and then replays them when you wave your hand past your ear. Very helpful if you missed someone's name—or his confession.

Another device you'll want to keep on your utility belt is the ostentatiously named The Beauty Of Inner Space. This in-ear module gives wearers complete control of their sound environment by allowing them to amplify certain noises and mute others. But the ultimate superhuman hearing aid has got to be Industrial Facility's Surround Sound Glasses.

Incorporating an advanced technology called "superdirectivity beamforming," the glasses use four onboard microphones to "focus" the wearer's hearing in whatever direction he or she is facing. As one designer said, "The result is a type of three-dimensional superhuman hearing similar to that found in certain animals, such as coyotes." Roger that.

STEP 4. Catch a Super-Strength Virus - GENE THERAPY
ONE OF THE MORE POPULAR (and creepier) ways people are looking to achieve superhuman strength these days is through the use of gene therapy. In fact, the field got a big boost in 1998, when H. Lee Sweeney of the University of Pennsylvania released a study showing that a mouse's muscles could be powerfully tweaked through genetics.

Aside from creating "mighty mice," Sweeney intended the therapy to help people suffering from genetic disorders. Of course, long before any of those truly needy folks could get near the doctor, a throng of athletes was already hammering down his door demanding treatment. Strongmen, runners, ballers—they all wished to be a little bit taller, a little bit stronger. One high school football coach even tried to have his entire team treated.Sounds like a simple fix for the Bad News Bears of the world, right? Hardly. There's a lot more to it than just inserting new genes into a poorly performing body to correct the flaws nature missed. The reality is, bodies tend to believe they're performing perfectly, and they're not about to let some modified genes jump up and start running the show. In order to smuggle problem-solving genes past the body's defenses, scientists seized on one of nature's sneakiest infiltrators—the virus. By short-circuiting the virus' disease-causing programming while maintaining its ability to bypass bodily roadblocks, gene therapy pioneers managed to create a cellular Trojan Horse. Once they had that part figured out, it was simply a matter of grafting a new and improved gene into the viral shell and letting 'er rip.

It's hoped the processes will lead to cures for diseases, such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia. Of course, it's also easy to see how, when applied to a healthy person, a little gene tweak might lead to fortified bones, muscles, and even (dare we say it?) a mutant-like healing ability. In fact, the strength and speed boosts that gene therapy could give healthy humans are already so apparent that the World Anti-Doping Agency has preemptively banned the procedure.

STEP 5. Don't Lift a Finger - BRAIN IMPLANTS
THE FINAL UPGRADE TO UNDERGO is all in your head—or mind, that is. After all, as great as it is to be able to rip buildings out of the pavement, there is no superheroic power cooler than being able to do the same thing telekinetically with your brain.
Impossible? Maybe not. An American company called Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems has successfully tested an aspirin-size, implantable brain computer called The BrainGate Neural Interface System. While it may not have the cuddliest name, the BGNIS is already hard at work improving the lives of paralyzed and otherwise immobile individuals. The implant is placed on the surface of the motor cortex—the part of the brain that controls movement—and uses dozens of hair-thin electrodes to detect neural signals. When it gets a spark, it bypasses the nerves and muscles and relays the information to a computer that affects change on the outside world.

This marvelous technology increases the independence of immobile individuals in a number of ways. They can "think" lights on and off, read emails, adjust their beds, and many other things. We suggest you use your BGNIS implant to control a brace of shoulder-mounted mini-cannons that fire grappling hooks, tasers, and nets. Of course, the exact application is up to you. Good luck, mighty hero!

>>Like this piece? Then subscribe to mental_floss and make our editors happy! Oh, and be sure to come back for tomorrow's piece.

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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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Library of Congress
10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.


One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.


Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.


Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”


The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.


Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.


Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.


The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.


Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.