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What Does it Matter if I'm Allergic to Eggs? (A Flu Shot FAQ)

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Since we're right in the middle of flu shot season, here are the answers to a few questions you might be mulling over on your way to get your injection of this year's vaccine cocktail.

How long have flu shots been around?

The flu has been making us sick since at least 1580, when a major pandemic ripped through Europe and Asia, killing ten percent of Rome's population in a single week. Over a dozen pandemics have struck since then, but it wasn't until the 1930s that scientists actually identified the influenza virus as the cause of all this illness. One of the foremost researchers in the country, Dr. Thomas Francis, Jr., used ferrets to show that the illness was purely viral.


Once scientists found the culprit, Francis and his colleagues started working to find a cure. In 1941, they discovered a substance in the noses of people with colds that neutralized the virus and realized that recovering from the flu kick-started the immune system. By 1944, Francis' team had developed a working flu vaccine for the Army, and it soon became available to civilian patients.

Who were the guinea pigs for these first vaccines?

In 1943, Francis and his colleagues thought they had a working vaccine, but they needed test subjects. Who better to use than convicts? The first study of the vaccine's effectiveness centered on 200 inmates at the Ypsilanti (Michigan) State Hospital, where the shots seemed safe and effective. The drug then made its way to a larger national test population of 12,500; during the next flu outbreak, the unvaccinated population got the flu at a rate four times higher than their counterparts who had taken the shots.

Did any other big names work on that first vaccine?

Yup. One of Francis' star researchers was a hotshot young virologist named Jonas Salk, who went on to perfect the polio vaccine in 1955.

How would, say, Gerald Ford fight swine flu?

Glad you asked. There was another small outbreak of swine flu back in 1976, and President Ford sprang into action. Although there were only a handful of confirmed cases of the flu - all of them soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey - Ford ordered a flu shot for every single person in the country. It seemed like a good idea at the time; vaccinating the entire population could have headed off another pandemic like the one that shook the country in 1918.

ford_getting_swine_flu_shot.jpgThere were more than a few problems with Ford's master plan, though. The particular vaccine that went out for this program had the potentially terrible consequence of triggering the development of the nerve disease Guillain-Barre syndrome. In the first two months of the program, 500 vaccinated people developed Guillain-Barre, which damages the peripheral nervous system and can lead to paralysis; over 25 of these patients died from complications related to the disease.


While the flu was frightening, a potentially lethal or paralyzing nerve disease was even scarier to a lot of Americans. Support for Ford's mandatory vaccination program waned, and even though the First Family televised their own shots to allay the country's fears, public support for the program dropped off. In the end, the government pulled the plug on the vaccinations in December 1976, after 40 million Americans had been vaccinated.

So is Guillain-Barre still a worry for flu shot recipients?

Not really. While that 1976 swine flu virus vaccine was associated with Guillain-Barre, the CDC says that only one study of all the vaccines since has turned up any connection between a flu shot and GBS, and that study placed the risk of GBS at roughly one in a million.

Why do I have to get a new flu shot each year?

There are a couple of reasons. First, each year's seasonal flu shot contains three types of flu that the CDC, the FDA, and the World Health Organization think might be prevalent that year. These types, one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus, change from year to year. Furthermore, even if the virus types didn't change from year to year, the immunity offered by last year's flu shot would be somewhat weakened, so you'd want to top it off.

Why should I get vaccinated right now?

Because even if you get the vaccine today, you can still get the flu tomorrow. According to the CDC, it takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to really kick in and build up your antibodies to the point where you're protected from infection. In the meantime, the flu can still drop its hammer on you. To fight this lag time, the CDC recommends that you get your flu shot early in the fall before flu season gets rolling.

Why does my doctor care if I'm allergic to eggs?

Because dead flu viruses don't just grow on trees. In order to obtain dead viruses for use in flu shots, scientists have to grown the viruses themselves. The vast majority of these viruses are grown using fertilized chicken eggs.

There's hope if you're allergic to eggs, though. The federal government is supporting the drug company Novartis with almost $500 million in funding to create a new flu vaccine factory in Holly Springs, NC. The drug Novartis hopes to produce there, Optaflu, is novel because it comes from mammalian cell cultures rather than eggs. The facility could be ready to roll as early as 2010.

Can nasal spray vaccines make you or your family sick?

If you're afraid of needles, 2003 was a big year for you. That's when pharmaceutical company MedImmune introduced FluMist, a nasal spray alternative to the traditional flu shot. Whereas traditional shots gave patients dead flu viruses to build up antibodies, FluMist gave the needle-phobic a dose of living—albeit severely weakened—flu virus.

This sort of vaccine, which is known as a live attenuated vaccine, raised some eyebrows from worriers. If you were getting live flu virus, couldn't that make you sick or contagious to those around you? Probably not. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic concluded that while patients who had taken FluMist did shed some of the virus to their surroundings, it was a negligible amount that wouldn't infect an adult. While children were more susceptible, the New York Times researched the question and concluded that the overall likelihood of transmitting the flu virus after taking FluMist was only 2.5 percent.

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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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