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Could Broccoli Sprouts Help Treat Type 2 Diabetes?

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The next big diabetes drug may have been sitting in the salad bar all along. Researchers say concentrated broccoli sprout extract could be an excellent tool for regulating blood glucose in people with Type 2 diabetes (T2D). They published their findings in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Scientists have been interested in broccoli sprout extract (BSE) for some time now. The active ingredient, a compound called sulforaphane (SFN), has already been tested as a potential treatment for a number of conditions, including cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Nobody had considered SFN for diabetes before. The authors of the current study weren’t even considering it. They had just been looking for existing drugs that matched T2D’s genetic signature. Out of 3852 different compounds, just a few possible leads emerged. The most promising among them was SFN.

The researchers took that lead and ran with it. They tested the compound’s effects on the liver and blood sugar in not one, but a whole bunch of settings, starting with computer models of genes, then moving to liver cells cultured in the lab, then mice and rats.

The results of each experiment informed the next one—and the results were promising. SFN seemed to reduce glucose production in liver cells and change T2D gene expression in rats.

Finally, the researchers moved into testing the drug on people. They recruited 103 obese people with hard-to-manage T2D at a Swedish hospital and tested how well each person’s body metabolized glucose. For 12 weeks, study participants took a daily dose of either BSE concentrate or a placebo. They watched for other symptoms or side effects and monitored their blood sugar as usual. Two weeks later, the researchers checked the participants’ glucose tolerance again.

The results were as encouraging as the previous experiments’. Patients who took the drug saw significantly decreased blood sugar levels without any serious side effects. And, the authors write, “SFN also protects against diabetic complications such as neuropathy, renal failure, and atherosclerosis in animal models because of its antioxidative effects.”

Before we all get too excited, there are a lot of caveats to consider.

“High doses of BSE cannot yet be recommended to patients as a drug treatment but would require further studies,” the authors write, “including data on which groups of patients would potentially benefit most from it.”

That’s for sure. All of the experiments we describe here were small. All of the rats and mice, and 75 percent of the human participants, were male. All 97 humans who completed the study were Swedish, obese, and between the ages of 35 and 75, and all the women involved were postmenopausal. And study participants took refined BSE. They didn’t just eat broccoli sprouts.

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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]

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