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5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines

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Vaccines are a crucial part of maintaining public health. Here are five things about vaccines—including the ones you may have received!—that you might not know.

1. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

2. Vaccines Aren't Just About Health

While the primary effect of a vaccine is to protect human health, vaccines also help people and communities in other ways. The secondary effects of vaccines include protecting income, improving learning, and promoting economic growth. The logic is simple: If you're not sick, you're able to work, go to school, or otherwise go about your business without draining resources treating disease. Here's an animated video from the GAVI Alliance with one perspective on how it works:

This is exactly why I get a flu shot every year. I'd rather be able to work (helping myself, my family, and at least my local economy) than run the risk of getting sick and having to waste a week on the couch. My choice to vaccinate myself may also mean that others won't get sick, because I won't pass the flu on to them. (That is, assuming this year's flu vaccine targets the flu strains that actually might reach me.)

3. Many Vaccines Can Be Delivered Without Needles

Image courtesy YouTube user MRSCALL60

While we often think of shots as the main way to receive vaccines, many vaccines can be delivered in other ways. Some can use a nasal spray (you may have seen the FluMist flu vaccine—it's not the only one), others via drops of liquid you swallow (the modern polio vaccine is one), others via tablets dissolved under the tongue, and many others can be delivered using needle-free technology. We have a whole article about ways you can get "shots" without needles. Even Batman uses needle-free technology!

4. The Measles Vaccine Turned 50 Last Year

Until 1963, getting measles was just part of being a kid in the United States, like getting chickenpox. The sad part is that measles can be a very serious illness; prior to the vaccine, measles led to tens of thousands of hospitalizations in the U.S. every year, sometimes caused brain damage, and killed an estimated 2.6 million people each year around the world. A vaccine was introduced in 1963 that cut the number of annual U.S. measles cases from 4,000,000 to 2,000 in the course of just four years. That vaccine has saved tens of millions of lives.

We still see some measles cases in the U.S., despite the disease being effectively eliminated for a decade. A JAMA report explains (emphasis added):

Since 2001, there has been fewer than 1 case of measles per 1 million US individuals; rubella reached this same threshold in 2004. Of the few measles cases that did occur in the United States, 84% were imported from countries where measles is circulating or linked to imported cases. An uptick of measles clusters in pockets of unvaccinated US residents has raised concerns among public health officials and renewed efforts to improve vaccine coverage here and abroad.

The WHO also announced yesterday that worldwide measles mortality rates are at historic lows, saying in part, "[Between 2000 and 2012,] an estimated 13.8 million deaths have been prevented by measles vaccination." On the other hand, they reported that the disease is still a major problem: "Measles continues to be a global threat, with five of six WHO regions still experiencing large outbreaks...."

5. FDR Created the March of Dimes to Fight Polio

Image courtesy of March of Dimes

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from polio, and created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (commonly known as the "March of Dimes") to fight it. The March of Dimes funded research that led to effective polio vaccines developed by Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, which in turn have rid more than 99% of the world of polio. Celebrities joined the cause, and even Elvis Presley (shown above in 1956) cheerily received his polio vaccine on camera to spread public awareness.

With the polio threat reduced, the March of Dimes turned its attention to preventing birth defects and reducing infant mortality. Today, the March of Dimes is overwhelmingly known for its work on infant health, though it all started with FDR's crusade to fight polio.

(Note: there are still three countries where polio is endemic, so the fight against polio goes on.)

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.