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From Text Neck to Hogwarts Headache: 6 Injuries for the Modern Era

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Our shiny new gadgets (and one teen wizard) are proving once again that human beings are really easily breakable.

1. Text Neck

Texting image via Shutterstock

Do you have shooting pains down your neck and arm, as well as numbness or tingling in your fingers and hand? If you're over forty, you might want to call an ambulance — you could be having a heart attack. If you’re younger than that, though, it could be the fashionable new injury among cell phone users: text neck. Yes, it seems that the act of hunching over our phones for most of our waking hours might actually have some negative side effects.

Back pain clinics and chiropractors in North America and Europe are reporting seeing thousands upon thousands of text neck cases. One chiropractor, Dean L. Fishman, has seen so many injuries directly caused by over-texting that he now specializes in their treatment, registering the term and opening the Text Neck Institute. He also trains other chiropractors in how to fix the problems resulting from the fact that we all really hate actually speaking to other people. Fishman calls text neck a “global epidemic” and claims his youngest patient is three years old. The Institute’s website describes the problem like this:

“Looking down at the screen on their hand held mobile device for long periods of time… will cause changes in the curve, supporting ligaments, tendons, and musculature, as well as the bony segments. Eventually there may be nerve involvement, muscle spasms and pain.”

So pretty soon we’re all going to be mute hunchbacks that can’t feel their fingers. Awesome. Speaking of fingers…

2. BlackBerry Thumb (aka Nintendo Thumb)

BlackBerry image via Shutterstock

BlackBerry Thumb is such a prevalent malady among businessmen and women that it has been covered everywhere from Wired to Consumer Reports. Since phones with built-in keyboards are awkward to type on using our fingers, we end up using just our thumbs. This in turn causes a repetitive strain injury, similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, that results in swelling, pain, and yet more numbness.

Dr. Alan Hedge of Cornell University explained to WebMD that thumbs are the least flexible part of our hands, and there is a reason we only use them to hit the space bar on an actual keyboard:

“[The thumb] is really designed as a stabilizer for pinch gripping with a finger. That is why you only have two of them, not eight. It is the fingers that have dexterity, not the thumb. If you're trying to type War and Peace with your thumbs, then you're going to have a problem."

But BlackBerry Thumb is really just a new, hip rebranding of an older, nerdier tech injury: Nintendo Thumb. PC Magazine defined it as a “repetitive stress injury due to excessive video game playing [that] causes a swelling at the base of the thumb.”

Gamers still suffer from Nintendo Thumb, but there are even more modern ways for you to hurt yourself while playing video games.

3. Wii Wrist

Oversize Wiimote image via Shutterstock

As Nintendo invents new ways to keep us entertained, it also continues to highlight parts of our bodies that are especially fragile. After Nintendo Thumb came Wii Wrist, part of a larger group of painful “Wiinjuries.”

When the Wii first came out, there were lots of stories of individuals breaking televisions, tables, their fingers, and other people’s noses when the remote accidentally flew out of their grasp, or they weren’t paying attention and smacked their hands into things (or people). But over time those injuries lessened, mostly thanks to the wrist strap, and repetitive strain injuries and over-stretched muscles in the shoulder and wrist increased.

Even things that made the Wii more fun could impact your wrist, like the vibrating of the controller. Thankfully, wrists can be strengthened, and if you're willing to put in the time and effort, with just a few minutes a day of special wrist exercises you can be cured of your Wiinjury forever!

4. Ear Bud Oblivion

Jogger image via Shutterstock

In the old days, if you wanted to rupture your eardrums while out walking, you needed to carry around a boom box. Now, however, you can discretely listen to Adele’s dulcet tones on full blast, your tiny earbuds ensuring drivers have no idea you can’t hear them coming.

The results of a study by the University of Maryland Medical School found that thanks to the increasing use of earbuds, pedestrian accidents have tripled since 2006. And we’re not talking just broken bones here; three-quarters of the incidents covered by the study were fatal. It’s not just the fact that you can’t hear cars coming; it’s also the general distraction of the music, making you less likely to check before you cross the street, for example. We all have it drilled into our heads in kindergarten to look both ways, but just stick some tiny plastic speakers in our adult ears and we forget all about it.

It’s becoming such a problem that New York, Oregon, Virginia, and California are even considering legislation — similar to laws limiting cell phone use in cars — which would ban pedestrians and cyclists from using distracting devices like phones or iPods while crossing streets or in traffic. In 2011, a bill in Arkansas attempting to make it illegal for all pedestrians to wear two earbuds at a time was withdrawn after a huge backlash.

5. iPad Shoulder

Cell phones? Wiis? iPods? Please, those injuries are for the unwashed masses. These days, the truly elite suffer from iPad Shoulder. Because it can be used to watch movies and read books, some people spend even more time hunched over their tablet than their phone. The resulting pain is bad enough that it warranted a study by Dr. Jack Dennerlein from Harvard University, whose results were published in the prestigious Work: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment, and Rehabilitation. He had study participants do a variety of everyday tasks on their tablets, then measured their postures with an “infrared three-dimensional motion analysis system.”

What Dr. Dennerlein found was that with tablets, you really can’t win. When viewing or reading, it's best to prop your iPad up at the most extreme angle the case allows for (even the lesser angles can be bad for your posture). But if you start typing, you need to lay it flat, since typing at an angle can cause joint pain and inflammation. One thing we can safely say at this point, though, is that any gadget you own is eventually likely to cause you some sort of joint pain and inflammation.

6. Hogwarts Headache

© BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

The only non-tech malady on this list, but a modern phenomenon nonetheless: a few years ago any cool kid who could read was suffering from Hogwarts Headache. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine actually ran a letter from a physician noting the unfortunate side effect of children reading more, and for longer periods, than they ever had in their lives. Yes, thanks to a couple extremely long (ostensibly children’s) books, an increasing number of parents brought their kids to the doctors with tension headaches. Since it is rare for children to suffer from chronic headaches like that, the doctors were stumped.

Then one pediatrician, Dr. Howard J. Bennett, finally realized that all three of the headache-ridden children he saw in one week were obsessively reading the newly released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a book that runs to over a quarter of a million words. Two of his patients refused to stop reading at their current rate, instead opting for a prescription to dull the pain. He noted that, “In all cases, the pain resolved one to two days after the patient had finished the book.”

So far there have been no reported cases of Bella Blackouts or Twilight Torpor.

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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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