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Scientific Reasons to Believe in Vampires, Werewolves & Zombies

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To celebrate our new "Team Edvard" shirt, we're re-running some of our favorite vampire stories this week.


vampiresOne dark and stormy evening, Spanish neurologist Juan Gomez-Alonso was watching a vampire movie when he realized something strange; he noticed that vampires behave an awful lot like people with rabies. The virus attacks the central nervous system, altering the moods and behaviors of those infected. Sufferers become agitated and demented, and, much like vampires, their moods can turn violent.

Rabies has several more vampire-like symptoms. It can cause insomnia, which explains the nocturnal portion of the legend. People with rabies also suffer from muscular spasms, which can lead them to spit up blood. What's stunning is the fact that these spasms are triggered by bright lights, water, mirrors, and strong smells, such as the scent of garlic. (Sound familiar?) After watching the Dracula movies a few more times, Dr. Gomez-Alonso felt compelled to continue studying vampire folklore and the medical history of rabies. Eventually, he discovered an even more profound connection between the two phenomena: Vampire stories became prominent in Europe at exactly the same time certain areas were experiencing rabies outbreaks. This was particularly true in Hungary between 1721 and 1728, when an epidemic plagued dogs, wolves, and humans and left the country in ruins. Gomez-Alonso theorized that rabies actually inspired the vampire legend, and his research was published by the distinguished medical journal Neurology in 1998.

The Madness of King George

Dr. Gomez-Alonso wasn't the first scientist who tried to pin vampirism to a real illness. In 1985, Canadian biochemist David Dolphin proposed a link between vampires and porphyria—a rare, chronic blood disorder characterized by the irregular production of heme, an iron-rich pigment found in blood. The disorder can cause seizures, trances, and hallucinations that last for days or weeks.

As a result, people with porphyria often go insane. (Britain's King George III, the one who inspired our founding fathers to start their own country, is thought to have suffered from it.) Porphyria sufferers also experience extreme sensitivity to light, suffering blisters and burns when their skin is exposed to the sun. Another symptom of porphyria is an intolerance to sulfur in foods. Which food contains
a lot of sulfur? That's right, garlic.


teen-wolf-300In addition to explaining away vampires, medicine also has some answers for werewolves. In The Werewolf Delusion (1979), Ian Woodward explains that rabies may have also inspired the werewolf myth.

Rabies is transmitted through biting, and the dementia and aggression of late-stage rabies can make people behave like wild animals. Now, imagine that you are living in a village in medieval Europe and you see your friend get bitten by a wolf. A few weeks later, he starts foaming at the mouth, howling at the moon, and biting other villagers. Suddenly, that story your grandmother told you about the Wolfman sounds like a decent explanation for what's going on.


thriller.jpgZombies may also be creatures of science, at least according to Costas J. Efthimiou, a physicist at the University of Central Florida. In 2006, he attempted to explain the mysterious case of Wilfred Doricent, a teenager who died and was buried in Haiti, only to reappear in his village more than a year later, looking and behaving like a zombie. Efthimiou concluded that Wilfred was not the victim of a curse, but of poisoning. In the waters of Haiti, there is a species of puffer fish whose liver can be made into a powder, which has the ability to make a person appear dead without actually killing him. Wilfred may have been poisoned with the powder and then buried alive.

According to one of Dr. Efthimiou's theories, once underground, Wilfred suffered from oxygen deprivation that damaged his brain. When the poison wore off and Wilfred woke up, he clawed his way out of the grave. (Graves tend to be shallow in Haiti.) Brain-damaged, he wandered the countryside for months until he ended up back in his village.

After Dr. Efthimiou published his explanation of the case, Dr. Roger Mallory, a neurologist at the Haitian Medical Society did an MRI scan of Wilfred's brain. Although the results were nonconclusive, he found that Wilfred's brain was damaged in a way that was consistent with oxygen deprivation. It would seem that zombification is nothing more than skillful poisoning.

How can you get a "Team Edvard" shirt of your own, you ask? If you shop now, you can pick one up for just $14.90 with the coupon code "edvard." If you're not into emo vampires or modern art, the coupon code works for all our 60+ t-shirt designs. (Offer ends Tuesday, June 29 at 11:59pm EST.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]