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A Rare Condition That Makes People Cry Blood

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Since the 16th century, doctors have reported cases of people who cry blood. Some once considered haemolacria—an extremely rare disorder that causes tears that are partially or entirely made of blood—something akin to stigmata, but doctors now have a bit of a better understanding of why some shed bloody tears. Yet, in many cases it remains a mystery. Here are a few things we know. 

1. Hormone changes can cause bloody tears

In what might be one of the earliest recorded cases of haemolacria, 16th century Italian physician Antonio Brassavola wrote of treating a nun who wept bloody tears when she was menstruating. Then, in 1581, a Flemish doctor wrote of a 16-year-old girl he treated “who discharged her flow throughout the eyes, as drops of bloody tears, instead of through the uterus.” 

Modern science backs this idea up: According to a 1991 study of 125 healthy subjects, menstruation contributes to occult haemolacria, or traces of blood in tears. The paper found that 18 percent of fertile women have some blood in their tears, while only 7 percent of pregnant women, 8 percent of men, and no post-menopausal women show signs of bloody tears. The scientists concluded that "Occult haemolacria in fertile women thus seems to be induced by hormones, whereas haemolacria most often is provoked by local factors (bacterial conjunctivitis, environmental damage, injuries)."

2. Tennessee seems to make people cry blood

Within the past five years, there have been two notable cases of haemolacria: Calvino Inman and Michael Spann. Both live in Tennessee, and doctors have been unable to discover a reason why either weeps blood.

When Inman, who lives in Rockwood, was 15, he stepped out of the shower and noticed red tears covering his face; he thought he was dying. Spann, from Antioch, was walking down the stairs when he experienced a crippling headache and noticed bloody tears.

While suddenly crying bloody tears will understandably cause panic, haemolacria is generally not life threatening. But it can be debilitating: Spann says he has been fired after employers noticed blood running down his face and has since become a recluse

3. Spontaneous cases are rare (but also happen in Tennessee)

Dr. Barrett G. Haik, director of the University of Tennessee's Hamilton Eye Institute, studied cases of unexplained and spontaneous episodes of bloody tears. His report, which was published in 2004 in the journal Ophthalmic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, determined that from 1992 to 2003, there were only four cases of spontaneous haemolacria without a medical cause—and two of the known cases that occurred since that study happened in Tennessee. "What's really rare is to have a child like this," Haik told CNN in 2009, when Inman's case first came to light. "Only once every several years do you see someone with no obvious cause."

People living in other places have experienced haemolacria, too. This year, 20-year-old Yaritza Oliva, who lives in Chile, began crying blood, and doctors have ruled out any likely causes, such as conjunctivitis or blood clots. And there are reports that Indian teen Twinkle Dwivedi allegedly cries bloody tears, but many attribute her ailment to Munchausen syndrome.   

4. Haemolacria normally disappears

Almost as unexpectedly as it starts, haemolacria ends. “Most of these were relatively young patients,” Haik’s co-author, James Fleming, an ophthalmologist at the Hamilton Eye Institute, told the Tennessean in 2004. “As they matured, the bleeding decreased, subsided, and then stopped.” 

Spann has experienced bloody tears for seven years, but the frequency has lessened. What was once a daily occurrence now happens about once a week. Haik and Fleming write in the paper: “In all patients, bloody tearing eventually resolved without further sequela. No recurrence has been reported over a follow-up period of 9 months to 11 years.”

5. Injuries also cause haemolacria

In March, a Canadian man was walking on the beach when a poisonous snake bit him, causing him to weep bloody tears and experience painful swelling and kidney failure. Doctors attributed this to the massive amounts of internal bleeding caused by the snake's venom. In most cases of haemolacria, a head injury, tumor, blood clot, a tear in the tear duct, or a common infection, such as conjunctivitis, causes the bloody tears.

When patients cry tears, doctors look for tumors, conjunctivitis, or tears in the tear ducts. Fleming told WTSP that Spann's haemolacria "probably [has] a cause, but it is a small tear duct that is only a millimeter or two or three in diameter. It's a tube. To get into that tube and examine that tube from one end to the other would cause scarring, and you could lose part of the tear duct."

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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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