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Extreme Epidermis: 7 Skin Conditions

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Skin is the largest organ on the human body, and an amazing number of things can go wrong with it. Here's a menagerie of skin diseases and conditions, all with full-color images that will have you checking yourself in the mirror for weeks. Some of the images are rather graphic. You've been warned.

1. Accessory nipples

Accessory nipples are just what they sound like—extra nipples that below the main nipples. They form in a line, as with the row of teats on a pig. Both boys and girls can get them.

2. Rhinophyma


In rhinophyma, your nose grows out of control, becoming bulbous and enflamed. It is a symptom of advanced acne rosacea, which causes chronic flushing of the face. Both Bill Clinton and W.C. Fields had rosacea, and caricatures of the men often show them having round, ruddy, red noses. Many folks with rhinophyma go on to have nose surgery.

3. Black Hairy Tongue


Black hairy tongue doesn't actually involve hair, nor is it necessarily black. Yeast or bacteria camp out on your tongue, where they produce the characteristic stain and make it appear to be fuzzy. Black is the most common, although many shades are possible, including brown, orange, and white.

4. Leprosy


An ancient disease, leprosy takes years to run its course. It can be 20 years before the first symptoms appear—a stuffy nose, cuts on the skin, and/or numbness—and longer still before the infamous flesh rotting sets in. Interestingly, scholars have been arguing for years (as seen in this 1909 New York Times article) that the leprosy mentioned so prominently in the Bible is not leprosy at all. If treated early, leprosy is highly curable. The World Health Organization has spearheaded a campaign to wipe out leprosy, with efforts now focusing on Brazil, India, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Nepal.

5. Hypertrichosis Lanuginosa


A diagnosis of hypertrichosis lanuginosa means you have hair growing all over your body—hair that is long, thick, and everywhere it should not be. The illness can be either inherited or acquired. The inherited form, known as Abras Syndrome, goes way back in history, according to medical historians. For instance, an extremely hirsute young man named Petrus Gonzalez from the Canary Islands was captured and "given" as a freak-show gift to the French nobility—who realized that there was nothing wrong with the guy except that he was completely covered in shaggy hair. They gave Gonzalez a castle, where he started family. Their portraits of Gonzalez show that many of his descendants inherited Abras Syndrome from him. The acquired form of hypertrichosis lanuginosa cause the fine hairs that your have on your face and elsewhere to thicken and lengthen. This condition is very rare. When it does occur, it's often as a result of cancer.

6. Cornu Cutaneum


Imagine looking into the mirror one morning—and seeing a horn sprouting from your head! That's the unfortunate predicament of folks with cornu cutaneum. These conical growths aren't actual horns, but rather tumors, sometimes benign and sometimes cancerous. But they look like horns, and that's the problem. One doctor described a patient with a horn three inches long (despite occasional trimmings) that had been developing for 30 years!

7. Human Papillomavirus


The human papillomavirus, often in the news for its association with cervical cancer, also causes numerous kinds of warts. In one extreme case, an Indonesian man with HPV developed pounds of thick, gray, bark-like warts. Since doctors hacked away the growths, the gentleman, Dede Koswara, has quit his job in a freak show and started searching for a wife.

[Most of these photos came from Johns Hopkins' online DermAtlas, which contains over 10,000 pictures of skin diseases.]


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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]