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11 Cardiac Facts to Take to Heart

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Your heart isn't gold. It isn't sweet. And don't put in on your sleeve—you'll make a mess! Just in time for Valentine's Day, here are 11 scientific facts about your ticker.

1. The most common time for a heart attack: Mondays between 8 and 9 a.m. Really!

2. Your muscular heart puts juiceheads to shame. It's theoretically strong enough to lift almost 3000 pounds, and a single heartbeat could shoot blood 30 feet.

3. You know what they say about guys with long ring fingers... They're less likely to have early heart attacks. The British Journal of Cardiology found that men with ring fingers the same length or only slightly longer than their index fingers have a higher risk of heart attacks in their thirties and forties than men with ring fingers much longer than their index fingers. The reason's testosterone, which is responsible for lengthening ring fingers, protecting against heart disease, and professional football.

4. The term "pacemaker" doesn't just refer to an implanted device. The pacemaker cells in the right atrium of a healthy heart control the heart rate. The artificial version relies on electrodes.

5. The average woman's heart beats 78 times per minute. The average man's beats 70 times per minute.

6. The heartbeat theory uses the known difference between average male and female heart rates to predict the sex of babies. Supposedly, 140-plus beats per minute predicts a girl, and under 140 beats is a sure sign of a boy. Doctors claim there's no proven correlation between heart rate and sex in hearts that young and well, unborn. But go ahead, listen to your baby's heartbeat, take a 50 percent chance, and guess. Or get a sonogram.

7. The bigger the heart, the slower the heart rate. The blue whale's heart is the size of a small car and beats only six times per minute.

8. Mammals are warm-blooded, hairy vertebrates that nurse their young. Know what else some scientists say they all have in common? A lifetime of about one billion and a half heartbeats. Obviously, not all creatures have the same longevity—an elephant lives longer than a cat, for instance. That's because larger animals' hearts beat slower. They don't just have more cells. They have more efficient cells.

9. The two sounds of a heartbeat are produced by the valves closing. Their official scientific name is lub-dub (not to be confused with dubstep).

10. Most heart transplants are performed in the United States, but the first one occurred in South Africa on December 3, 1967. The first heart transplant in the U.S. occurred three days later in Brooklyn, New York. But it wasn't your typical heart transplant—it was performed on an infant, who died nearly seven hours later. The next pediatric transplant didn't happen until 1984 in London. It was ultimately unsuccessful. The same year, the U.S. tried another pediatric transplant on an infant called Baby Fae. Because there weren't any appropriate donor hearts, the surgeon tried the next best thing—a baboon heart. Baby Fae lived for three weeks.

Baby Moses, image via

But it gets better! In 1985, Baby Moses was the first infant to undergo a successful heart transplant. Many more babies have survived since. The bigger problem now—for all patients needing transplants—is the limited availability of donor organs. In May 2012, a baby boy in Italy received the world's smallest artificial heart, an 11-ounce titanium device that will eventually be replaced with the real thing.

11. Want to become an organ donor? Good for you—and for the people you'll help someday. You can sign up here.

Meanwhile, the next big thing in the cardiac world is the "beating heart" transplant—and if Edgar Allan Poe were still alive, he'd love it. Harvested hearts start to deteriorate within hours. The longer they take to transplant, the greater likelihood of rejection. Instead of using an ice chest, now scientists are experimenting with heart boxes that will circulate donor blood and keep the heart ticking ... outside the body. This way, the hearts will stay healthy for transplant recipients. Cue the "It's my heart in a box!" jokes.

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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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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]