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4 Amazing Things Chili Peppers Can Do

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By Maggie Koerth-Baker

The hottest thing about chili peppers isn't the way they taste; it's everything else they can do for you.

1. They Strangle Cancer

Human cells aren't the happy-go-lucky little fellows we'd like to imagine. In fact, our cells commit suicide on a regular basis, via a process called apoptosis. Unlike the messy deaths that happen when a cell is injured or diseased, apoptosis is a peaceful passing, wherein an otherwise healthy cell reaches the end of its life span, then shuts down, shrinks, and is absorbed by its neighbors. But with certain types of cancer, the natural process of apoptosis doesn't occur. Unwilling to go quietly into the great night, cancer cells rage on, refusing to die, continuing to multiply, and eventually forming tumors.

That's where chili peppers come in. New studies have shown that capsaicin—the chemical compound that gives chili peppers their kick—may be the key to controlling cancer cells. During the past few years, research has indicated that capsaicin can induce apoptosis in cancers of the lungs, pancreas, and prostate. In the case of prostate cancer, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that capsaicin also slows the cancer's ability to grow. This means chili-pepper treatments could be lifesavers for men who've survived one bout of cancer but are at risk of another.

Of course, that doesn't mean that people should start feasting on pepper-only diets just yet. Right now, there's little evidence that gorging on chilies will prevent healthy males from getting the disease. In fact, thus far, all research tests on capsaicin have been limited to Petri dishes and some very unlucky mice. That said, scientists remain optimistic about the pepper's potential to help control the disease.

2. They Protect Men at Sea

Any good sailor knows that barnacles are bad news. If enough of these water-dwelling pests clamp onto a boat's hull, it becomes less hydrodynamic. In fact, barnacle build-ups can force ships to use as much as 30 percent more fuel. That's why many seafarers choose to safeguard their vessels by coating them with anti-barnacle paint. The only problem is that these paints are generally filled with toxic chemicals and metals.

Fortunately, in the early 1990s, an American sailor named Ken Fischer came up with a better idea. While chowing down on a Tabasco-laced sandwich, Fischer realized that barnacles might not share his love for spicy food. His hunch was right. Before long, Fischer was making millions off his pepper-based repellant, Barnacle Ban.

Surprisingly, barnacles might not be the only sea creatures averse to chili peppers. The Kuna tribe of Panama reportedly still sails with strings of chilies tied to their boats. The peppers supposedly make the ships (and the Kuna themselves) less appetizing to sharks.

3. They Numb the Pain

In addition to killing cancer and fending off barnacles, capsaicin has the ability to dull pain. When it hits the tongue, the spice activates pain receptors that fire up that burning sensation. But after a while, the same process depletes the body of Substance P, a chemical involved in the perception of pain. The message "ouch" stops getting through to your brain, and your discomfort fades.

Medical science has already turned this trick into over-the-counter creams for arthritis, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Someday, capsaicin could revolutionize anesthesiology. Have you noticed that after a trip to the dentist, you talk funny and can't move parts of your face? That's because traditional anesthesia temporarily deadens your senses to the extent that you lose control of those body parts. In October 2007, however, researchers at Harvard Medical School announced that they'd used capsaicin to numb rats without rendering them immobile. The researchers first injected rats with capsaicin and then with a local anesthetic. As the capsaicin flowed through the pain reception pathways, the anesthetic followed in its footsteps, deadening any discomfort while leaving the rats free to scurry about their cages.

In the future, this could mean better painkillers—ones that could make it possible for women in labor to be mobile after an epidural or allow dental patients to move their faces normally after getting a filling.

4. They Make You Forget How Bad They Taste

Although pepper fanatics are always itching for new ways to assault their taste buds, chilies aren't actually addictive. Numerous scientific studies have shown that chili peppers don't induce physical cravings, withdrawal, or loss of control—the classic signs of addiction. Yet, there is something about peppers that keeps people coming back for more.

Scientists think that when pain receptors come into contact with capsaicin, it triggers the body to release endorphins—chemicals that bind to the same receptors in the brain as opiates such as heroin and morphine. And while endorphin highs from peppers aren't like the ones in Trainspotting, they can provide enough of a euphoric kick to keep people engaged in the actions that release them, such as jogging or bungee jumping. This observation may go a long way toward explaining why humans are the only mammals that keep eating chili peppers, even though the sensation burns. Scientists believe that the little high we get from the spice has helped us convince ourselves that we like the taste. The truth is that we do the same thing—for the same sort of pleasurable payout—with other bitter flavors such as coffee, tobacco, and beer.

This article originally appeared in the July-August 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

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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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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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