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12 Obvious Things Confirmed By Science

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Brace yourself. These are shocking developments, people.

1. Yes, your cat is ignoring you

Your tabby recognizes the sound of your voice, but it’s ignoring you anyway. A recent study at the University of Tokyo showed that, although a cat can identify its owner’s commands, it really doesn’t care enough to listen. The reason for kitty’s cold shoulder? Evolution. Unlike dogs, which were bred and domesticated by humans, cats domesticated themselves. They just aren’t hardwired to listen for commands.     

2. Students who do homework get higher grades

Economist Nick Rupp divided his class into two groups—those required to do homework, and those who were not. The results were (not) shocking. Kids who took home assignments had higher test scores and retention rates. To the delight of teachers everywhere, Rupp confirmed that “homework plays an important role in student learning.”

3. Men stare at women’s boobs

In an article titled My Eyes are Up Here, Sarah Gervais and her team used eye-tracking technology to confirm what we’ve long suspected—men like ogling at women’s chests. Men spent more time looking at a woman’s body than her face. Their eyes wandered the most if the woman had—surprise!—wide hips, a narrow waist, and large breasts. But men weren’t alone. Women were just as guilty. While guys are gaga for gozangas, women stare to scope out the competition.

4. High Heels Hurt

High heels exaggerate your posture, tilt your hips, and shorten your gait. Some evolutionary psychologists argue they’re part of our primal urge to compete for mates. While that’s up for debate, science has confirmed that high heels are pretty much terrible for you. A study by the Institute for Aging Research found that 64 percent of older women who complained of foot pain had also spent years in high heels, pumps, or sandals.

5. Pigs love mud

Pigs don’t have many sweat glands, which makes controlling body temperature a problem. So, for the longest time, scientists believed pigs wallowed in mud to keep cool. Although that’s true, a study in Applied Animal Behavior Science discovered an evolutionary twist: Porkers don’t roll in mud because they have just a few sweat glands; rather, they have a few sweat glands because they like to roll in mud. (Put differently, swine never developed sweat glands because their ancestors were always playing in muck!) Now some scientists believe a mud bath simply makes pigs happy. It’s a tautology, but pigs like mud because, well, they like mud.

6. Men slow down when walking with their girlfriends

In the universal battle over who truly wears the pants, the ladies score one more point. Scientists at Seattle Pacific University confirmed that when couples walk together, the guy slows down. Men put on the brakes and slow down seven percent, while their significant other doesn’t speed up or slow down at all. However, when men walked with friends—male or female—their pace barely dipped.

7. Cereal tastes better with milk

Scientists at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile did the unthinkable—they added water to corn flakes. They found that the “intermolecular interactions in the flake’s matrix could be weakened by the plasticizer, leading to the solubilization of some components, and . . . a decrease in mechanical integrity.” Translated into English? Water makes cereal soggy. Milk, it turns out, is special. The fat content protects cereal from sucking in too much liquid, keeping it crispy. 

8. Overeating can lead to weight gain

Between the 1970s and now, the average adult in the U.S. gained 19 pounds. Research presented at the European Congress of Obesity in 2009 found that “weight gain in the American population seems to be virtually all explained by eating more calories,” study leader Boyd Swinburn said. Laziness had little to do with America’s tightening belt.

9. Meetings Suck

A 2005 study in Group Dynamics found that meetings are annoying time-sapping killjoys. By analyzing the diary entries of 37 university workers, researchers concluded that meetings make employees stressed and grumpy, hindering even the most motivated workers from getting things done.

10. Reading is good for your brain

Your second grade teacher was right. Experts put PhD candidates inside an MRI and had them read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. At one point, they were told to read for pleasure. Then they were told to read analytically (as if they were studying for a test). In both cases, their brains' blood flow increased. Under each condition, blood flowed to different parts of the noggin. Each style of reading prompted different—and beneficial—brain patterns. “Literary study provides a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains,” said project leader Natalie Phillips. Rejoice, English majors!

11. Party schools love to party

It took 14 years, but a team at Harvard School of Public Health finally did it—they confirmed Playboy’s sneaking suspicion. Students binge drank more if their school had a reputation for drinking and partying. The survey of 50,000 students at 120 colleges showed that, although the student body changes year by year, the ratio of heavy to casual drinkers stays the same.

12. The Internet is where productivity comes to die

The Internet is an amazing tool with the power to do the world infinite good. But, wait. Look! It’s a bear riding a bicycle! According to Pew Research, 53 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 go online once a day just to waste time. Older adults are even worse. Nearly two-thirds of them roam the Internet for no reason at all. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of them.

Images courtesy of iStock

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
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]

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