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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!

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>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
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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