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6 Pieces of Folksy Wisdom That Are Actually True

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The holidays are here again. That means family, and family means listening to insane, ill-informed debates over every subject imaginable. But just because your relatives are old and probably a little crazy doesn’t mean everything they say is nonsense. When it comes to some of that old down-home folksy wisdom, for example, they’re actually right.

1. You Can Predict the Weather From Joint Pain

Everyone’s related to someone who swears they can tell when it’s going to rain (or snow, or hail, or whatever) based on the pain in their joints. “My knee is acting up!" your relative likely wails. "A storm must be coming.” And it’s not just their imagination: Joint pain really can be a good indicator of weather activity. Shifts in barometric pressure can cause painful swelling in joints and ligaments, especially for those who have arthritis or have suffered previous injury.

Depending on a person's sensitivity, even small shifts in barometric pressure can be noticeable; some sufferers claim that they can detect storms days in advance. Of course, for those without arthritis or old injuries, there’s always a good old standard barometer.

2. Chicken Soup Can Help a Cold

While any kind of soup can be nice on a wintery day, chicken soup is our cultural go-to—and according to television, movies, and our dear old grandmas, that's not all this soup is good for. According to them, chicken soup doesn't just warm you up; it can also cure a cold.

Sometimes those weird, spurious-sounding home remedies get passed down for a good reason, and this is one of them. Chicken soup has properties that inhibit neutrophils, white blood cells that fight off bacteria in inflamed cells. One of their best defenses is the creation of mucus. Unfortunately, they tend to work in a “better safe than sorry” mode, which is what leads to the extraneous amount of snot we get during a cold, making us feel like crap. Chicken soup slows down mucus production and allows some of it to temporarily drain.

Most of the ingredients in chicken soup work together to give the meal its cold relieving powers. It's also worth noting that some varieties of chicken soup (even store bought!) seem to have a better effect than others. So if Mom’s recipe isn’t doing it for you, try a different one.

3. Sleep On It and Decide Tomorrow

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This advice is probably older than the very concept of advice itself. Anytime someone’s on the verge of a big decision, someone will inevitably tell them to sleep on it before making up their mind.

This sounds like the kind of tip that would only be handy if you make all major decisions while severely sleep deprived, but even if you can knock out 8 hours a night without a problem, it seems that sleeping before deciding still has a huge benefit.

Because our brains work in ways that aren’t exactly rational even at the best of times, it seems that unconscious thought is far better at coming up with answers to complex decisions than conscious thought. Even in studies where subjects were given a decision and then distracted for an hour (as opposed to picking something right away), the difference in the quality of decision-making was huge.

Since sleep is a built-in way to not have to think about ... well, anything, really, for about 8 hours, it’s the simplest way to turn off the conscious part of our brain and outsource the decision-making to the unconscious.

4. Animals Know When Danger is Coming

Before and after any given major unforeseen disaster, you’ll hear anecdotes from people who claim that their pets or some other wildlife somehow sensed the disaster and warned them in time. It constantly pops up in disaster movies, where the family dog will sense some impending cataclysm while its owners remain blissfully unaware.

Cujo might not have a Spidey-sense for catastrophe, but he does know something. Reports following the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami showed that the impact on local fauna was minimal. Animals sought higher ground, found shelter, or, in the case of house pets, refused to go outside at all during the hours leading up to the tsunami. As a result, few animals died during the tsunami compared to humans.

But it's not magic. Animals just tend to have sharper senses than we do, which allows them to, for example, hear the infrasound (extremely low-frequency noise) that earthquakes make. Other animals may literally have sixth (or seventh or eighth) senses that allow them to detect things we don't: birds can sense electromagnetic fields, and snakes are extremely sensitive to vibration. Even animals with none of those things can simply take notice of the others and follow along.

5. Don’t Swallow Your Gum

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When you were a kid, there’s a 99.99 percent chance that you were told by someone, at some point, not to swallow your chewing gum. The reason why can vary based on geographic area. According to some people, it’s because gum gets stuck in your intestinal tract and takes 7 years to digest. Others say it’s because you’ll never digest swallowed gum. Further tellings get right down to it and say that you’ll just plain die.

And, if you know anything about old wives’ tales and basic human biology at all, you’ll know none of those things are true. Well, mostly, anyway. Because, you see, there is an excellent reason not to swallow your gum, and it sort of connects to all of those.

Swallowing enough gum can lead to what’s called a bezoar, which is a really gross lump of indigestible material that gets trapped in the digestive system, causing intestinal blockages. And yes, it can kill you.

They’re most famous for being made out of hair in sufferers of Rapunzel Syndrome—a disorder that causes people to eat their hair—but they can technically be made out of anything if there’s enough of it to get wound around itself.

To be fair, most sufferers of gum-based bezoars are little kids, who are usually too small to know any better. Still, in theory, if you’re an extremely frequent gum chewer who swallows it to rebel against authority, you might want reconsider your position.

6. Eating Bananas Will Make You Have a Baby Boy

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There’s so much folk wisdom about pregnancies that has a whole section dedicated to it. With so much bunk floating around about reproduction, you can pretty much file anything you hear about it into your internal garbage bin.

For example, eating bananas while pregnant will lead you to give birth to a baby boy. It sounds ridiculous, but at least one study suggests that it's true.

There's a catch, though: You can’t just feast on bananas for nine months and expect to have a 100 percent chance at having a boy. Women need to eat a whole lot of high-energy foods (like bananas) right after conceiving. Also, it’s only about a 56 percent probability, which doesn’t sound a whole lot better than pure chance—but it’s actually quite a large difference.

The exact cause is still a mystery. All we currently know is that high levels of glucose tend to be beneficial to boys and detrimental to girls in the embryonic stage. In fact, with modern low-calorie diets being popular, there has been a very slight uptick in female births in developed countries. What’s more, this seems to apply to any kind of mammals: Richer, higher-calorie foods also lead to a higher birth rate for males in wildlife as well.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]