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Why Sisters Are Scientifically Better Than Brothers (and Other Important Discoveries)

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If you're keeping tabs on the score between robots and humans, you've probably heard about the robot named Adam who made a scientific discovery back in April without any human assistance. Well, sort of. He made the discovery after some human scientists gave him a specific project to work on. And while the event was chalked up as a win in the artificial intelligence column, we're here to tell you that Adam's still got a lot of catching up to do before he's doing the work of real human scientists. Need proof? From definitive proof on why sisters are better than brothers to the reasons we itch and scratch, here's our monthly round-up of (human!) scientific discoveries you ought to know about.

Science Proves Sisters are Way Better than Brothers?!

New research from the University of Ulster confirms that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Tony Cassidy, the lead researcher on the project, found sisters make their siblings more optimistic and help families deal with problems in emotionally healthy ways. Families with at least one sister are more cohesive and communicate more often. Girls who grow up with a sister are more independent and achieve more than girls who have brothers. Cassidy surveyed 571 young adults between 17 and 25. He found that sisters have the most positive impact on broken families. Only children scored in the mid-range for happiness while boys who had only brothers were the least happy.

Tony Cassidy, University of Ulster; presentation at the British Psychological Association Annual Conference.

Reducing Autism Cases by 15%

There's good news in the fight against autism: Hakon Hakonarson's new research may drastically reduce the number of autism cases in the world. Hakonarson, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been running the largest and most exhaustive genetic study on the disorder. He's analyzed DNA from 2,600 autistic children, 2,000 of their family members, and 7,000 healthy controls. Hakonarson's team has found several variations in chromosomes, but one of the most important might be the variation on gene CDH10, which was found in 65 percent of autistic participants. Amazingly, researchers hypothesize that by fixing this variation they could reduce the number of autism cases by 15 percent. They also found that autism was linked strongly to 30 genes, which produce proteins that help brain cells migrate to the correct location and connect to neighboring cells. While it will be years before autism is completely understood, Hakonarson's results have given scientists a foothold since they can now point to 133 genes which directly contribute to the disorder.

Hakon Hakonarson, et al. "Common genetic variants on 5p14.1 associate with autism spectrum disorders," Nature.

Poverty Can Affect Your Memory

Social scientists have long understood that poorer children don't perform as well as their more affluent peers. Researchers know that inadequate schools, infrequent access to health care, and low quality diets contribute to lower academic and career achievement—the so-called income-achievement gap. But two child development experts have also found that the stress of poverty changes brain functioning. Cornell University's Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg studied 195 poor and middle class Caucasian students. By measuring their stress hormones and blood pressure at age 9 and 13, the researchers found a direct link between poverty and stress. The duo also tested 17-year old students on their memory-- a reliable indicator of reading, language and problem-solving abilities. Children who grew up in poverty recalled 8.5 items while children who were more affluent remembered 9.44 items. The duo theorizes that stress hormones damage grey matter leading to the deficiencies in working memory.

Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg "Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Science of Scratching

itching-powder.jpgThe next time you complain about your itchy back and feet, remember that you don't have it that bad. In one of the more disturbing accounts we've ever read (if you're squeamish, don't read ahead), a June 2008 New Yorker article by author Atul Gawande introduced the world to M, a woman who had recently suffered from shingles. M, who is also HIV positive, could not stop scratching the right side of her head. She complained to her doctor who prescribed the normal anti-itching remedies, but the feeling wouldn't cease. Her doctor suggested it was a form of OCD, yet OCD medications didn't quell the itch either. Worse still, the condition got so bad that M actually scratched through her skull.


For people suffering from serious itching conditions, scratching does little to stop the sensation. But now, thanks to Glenn Giesler Jr. and Steve Davidson's recent study, we might understand what's going on when you need to itch. Here's how it works: When a mosquito bites your arm, your sensory neurons respond to the histamine by carrying the itch message through the spinal cord to the thalamus in the brain. The thalamus passes the itch message to the cerebral cortex, which produces the itching sensation at the bite. That's what makes you want to scratch the bite. But Giesler and Davidson did something clever. By using primates, Giesler applied histamine to the animals' feet. If the researchers itched the foot after applying the histamine, the message was disrupted in the spinal cord, meaning the brain didn't get the order to create the itching feeling. The hope is that by understanding how scratching and itching works, it will allow researchers to find better solutions soon.

Steve Davidson, Xijing Zhang, Sergey G Khasabov, Donald A Simone and Glenn J Giesler Jr. "Relief of itch by scratching: state-dependent inhibition of primate spinothalamic tract neurons," Nature Neuroscience.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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