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10 Things Your Body Can Do After You Die

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From getting hitched to saving the environment, here's proof you can still be a busybody long after you kick the bucket.

1. Get Married

Death is no obstacle when it comes to love in China. That's because ghost marriage—the practice of setting up deceased relatives with suitable spouses, dead or alive—is still an option.

Ghost marriage first appeared in Chinese legends 2,000 years ago, and it's been a staple of the culture ever since. At times, it was a way for spinsters to gain social acceptance after death. At other times, the ceremony honored dead sons by giving them living brides. In both cases, the marriages served a religious function by making the deceased happier in the afterlife.

While the practice of matchmaking for the dead waned during China's Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, officials report that ghost marriages are back on the rise. Today, the goal is often to give a deceased bachelor a wife—preferably one who has recently been laid to rest. But in a nation where men outnumber women in death as well as in life, the shortage of corpse brides has led to murder. In 2007, there were two widely reported cases of rural men killing prostitutes, housekeepers, and mentally ill women in order to sell their bodies as ghost wives. Worse, these crimes pay. According to The Washington Post and The London Times, one undertaker buys women's bodies for more than $2,000 and sells them to prospective "in-laws" for nearly $5,000.

2. Unwind with a Few Friends

Today, most of us think of mummies as rare and valuable artifacts, but to the ancient Egyptians, they were as common as iPhones. So, where have all those mummies gone? Basically, they've been used up. Europeans and Middle Easterners spent centuries raiding ancient Egyptian tombs and turning the bandaged bodies into cheap commodities. For instance, mummy-based panaceas were once popular as quack medicine. In the 16th century, French King Francis I took a daily pinch of mummy to build strength, sort of like a particularly offensive multivitamin. Other mummies, mainly those of animals, became kindling in homes and steam engines. Meanwhile, human mummies frequently fell victim to Victorian social events. During the late 19th century, it was popular for wealthy families to host mummy-unwrapping parties, where the desecration of the dead was followed by cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

3. Tour the Globe as a Scandalous Work of Art


Beginning in 1996 with the BODY WORLDS show in Japan, exhibits featuring artfully flayed human bodies have rocked the museum circuit. Almost 20 years later, more than 40 million people have visited BODY WORLDS, and this year, a permanent exhibition opened in Berlin. The problem is, it's not always clear where those bodies are coming from.

Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the man behind BODY WORLDS, has documented that his bodies were donated voluntarily to his organization. However, his largest competitor, Premier Entertainment, doesn't have a well-established donation system. Premier maintains that its cadavers are unclaimed bodies from mainland China. And therein lies the concern. Activists and journalists believe "unclaimed bodies" is a euphemism for "executed political prisoners."

The fear isn't unfounded. In 2006, Canada commissioned a human rights report that found Chinese political prisoners were being killed so that their organs could be "donated" to transplant patients. And in February 2008, ABC News ran an exposé featuring a former employee from one of the Chinese companies that supplied corpses to Premier Entertainment. In the interview, he claimed that one-third of the bodies he processed were political prisoners. Not surprisingly, governments have started to take notice. In January 2008, the California State Assembly passed legislation requiring body exhibits to prove that all their corpses were willfully donated.

4. Fuel a City

Cremating a body uses up a lot of energy—and a lot of nonrenewable resources. So how do you give Grandma the send-off she wanted and protect the planet at the same time? Multitask. Some European crematoriums have figured out a way to replace conventional boilers by harnessing the heat produced in their fires, which can reach temperatures in excess of 1,832 degrees F. In fact, starting in 1997, the Swedish city of Helsingborg used local crematoriums to supply 10 percent of the heat for its homes. In 2011, it was announced that a crematorium located in Durham, United Kingdom, would begin selling the energy it harnesses by burning bodies to the country's National Grid. 

5. Get Sold, Chop Shop-Style

Selling a stiff has always been a profitable venture. In the Middle Ages, grave robbers scoured cemeteries and sold whatever they could dig up to doctors and scientists. And while the business of selling cadavers and body parts in the United States is certainly cleaner now, it's no less dubious.

Today, the system runs like this: Willed-body donation programs, often run by universities, match cadavers with the researchers who need them. But because dead bodies and body parts can't be sold legally, the middlemen who supply these bodies charge large fees for "shipping and handling." Shipping a full cadaver can bring in as much as $1,000, but if you divvy up a body into its component parts, you can make a fortune. A head can cost as much as $500; a knee, $650; and a disembodied torso, $5,000.

The truth is, there are never enough of these willed bodies to meet demand. And with that kind of money on the mortician's table, corruption abounds. In the past few years, coroners have been busted stealing corneas, crematorium technicians have been caught lifting heads off bodies before they're burned, and university employees at body donation programs have been found stealing cadavers. After UCLA's willed-body program director was arrested for selling body parts in 2004, the State of California recommended outfitting corpses with bar code tattoos or tracking chips, like the kinds injected into dogs and cats. The hope is to make cadavers easier to inventory and track down when they disappear.

6. Become a Soviet Tourist Attraction



Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wanted to be buried in his family plot. But when Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin insisted on putting his corpse on public display in Red Square, creating a secular, Communist relic. Consequently, an organization called the Research Institute for Biological Structures was formed to keep Lenin's body from decay. The Institute was no joke, as some of the Soviet Union's most brilliant minds spent more than 25 years working and living on site to perfect the Soviet system of corpse preservation. Scientists today still use their method, which involves a carefully controlled climate, a twice-weekly regimen of dusting and lubrication, and semi-annual dips in a secret blend of 11 herbs and chemicals. Unlike bodies, however, fame can't last forever. The popularity of the tomb is dwindling, and the Russian government is now considering giving Lenin the burial he always wanted.

7. Snuggle Up with Your Stalker

When a beautiful young woman named Elena Hoyos died from tuberculosis in Florida in 1931, her life as a misused object of desire began. Her admirer, a local X-ray technician who called himself Count Carl von Cosel, paid for Hoyos to be embalmed and buried in a mausoleum above ground. Then, in 1933, the crafty Count stole Elena's body and hid it in his home. During the next seven years, he worked to preserve her corpse, replacing her flesh as it decayed with hanger wires, molded wax, and plaster of Paris. He even slept beside Elena's body in bed—that is, until her family discovered her there. In the ensuing media circus, more than 6,000 people filed through the funeral home to view Elena before she was put to rest. Her family buried her in an unmarked grave so that von Cosel couldn't find her, but that didn't stop his obsession. Von Cosel wrote about Elena for pulp fiction magazines and sold postcards of her likeness until he was found dead in his home in 1952. Near his body was a life-size wax dummy made to look just like Elena.

8. Not Spread an Epidemic

In the aftermath of natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods, and hurricanes, it's common for the bodies of victims to be buried or burned en masse as soon as possible. Supposedly, this prevents the spread of disease. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), dead bodies have been getting a bad rap. It turns out that the victims of natural disasters are no more likely to harbor infectious diseases than the general population. Plus, most pathogens can't survive long in a corpse. Taken together, the WHO says there's no way that cadavers are to blame for post-disaster outbreaks. So what is? The fault seems to lie with the living or, more specifically, their living conditions. After a disaster, people often end up in crowded refugee camps with poor sanitation. For epidemic diseases, that's akin to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

9. Stand Trial

In 897 CE, Pope Stephen VI accused former Pope Formosus of perjury and violation of church canon. The problem was that Pope Formosus had died nine months earlier. Stephen worked around this little detail by exhuming the dead pope's body, dressing it in full papal regalia, and putting it on trial. He then proceeded to serve as chief prosecutor as he angrily cross-examined the corpse. The spectacle was about as ludicrous as you'd imagine. In fact, Pope Stephen appeared so thoroughly insane that a group of concerned citizens launched a successful assassination plot against him. The next year, one of Pope Stephen's successors reversed Formosus' conviction, ordering his body reburied with full honors.

10. Stave Off Freezer Burn

At cryonics facilities around the globe, the dead aren't frozen anymore. The reason? Freezer burn. As with steaks and green beans, freezing a human body damages tissues, largely because cells burst as the water in them solidifies and expands. In the early days of cryonics, the theory was that future medical technology would be able to fix this damage, along with curing whatever illness killed the patient in the first place.

Realizing that straight freezing isn't the best option, today's scientists have made significant advances in cryonics. Using a process called vitrification, the water in the body is now replaced with an anti-freezing agent. The body is then stored at cold temperatures, but no ice forms. In 2005, researchers vitrified a rabbit kidney and successfully brought it back to complete functionality—a big step in cryonics research. (It may help in organ transplants someday, too.) But science has yet to prove that an entire body can be revived. Even worse, some vitrified bodies have developed large cracks in places where cracks don't belong. Until those kinks get worked out, the hope of being revived in the future will remain a dream.

This article originally appeared in a 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. Maggie Koerth-Baker is now a big deal!

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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]

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