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5 Bodies That Refused to Rot

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You live, you die, you rot. At least, most of us do. However, there have been people throughout history whose bodies have stubbornly refused to decompose as expected. These "incorruptible" corpses are often the remains of people said to be saints or revered figures. Are these bodies miracles, scientific curiosities, or fakes? Keep in mind that modern embalming techniques only date back to the American Civil War and therefore were not available prior to the 1860s.

1. Saint Betina Zita

Saint Zita was revered during her life essentially for being a very nice lady whom everyone really liked. A sort of cult grew up around her after her death in the year 1272. More than 300 years later, her body was exhumed and found not to have decayed. 

Don't believe it? Go see for yourself: Her body (which dried out and became essentially mummified since being exhumed) is still on public display at the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca, Italy. Her face isn't exactly perfect after drying out, but you've got to admit that the old girl looks pretty good for someone over seven hundred years old.

2. Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov

Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was a Buddist lama who hailed from Russia. In 1927, while still very much alive, Itigilov asked his fellow lamas to begin funeral rites for him. Sitting in the lotus position, he died during meditation. In his will, he asked specifically to be buried exactly as he had died. Curiously, he also asked that his body be exhumed after a few years.

As of 2002, Itigilov's body was described as "in the condition of someone who had died 36 hours ago." Since that time, its appearance has been changed by the salt it was packed in, which has to make you wonder whether the lama was so incorruptible after all.

3. 'La Doncella'

Roughly 500 years ago, a 15-year-old Incan girl was led up the steep sides of a mountain in Argentina. A sharp blow to the head killed her, and she was left seated with her clothes and ceremonial objects as a religious sacrifice. The cool temperatures and dry, low-oxygen air of the Andes preserved her body for centuries until it was discovered in 1999. We don't know what her real name is, but her modern nickname is "La Doncella," which means "The Maiden."

4. Lady Xin Zhui 

Lady Xin Zhui was the wife of a minor Chinese nobleman during the Han dynasty. She lived an extravagant lifestyle for the time and place, eating a lot of meat and generally sitting around not needing to work. Luxury eventually caught up with her when she died, morbidly obese, of a heart attack in the year 163 BCE.

When her body was discovered in 1971, her skin was still soft and her limbs could still flex at the joints. Lady Zhui is no Snow White, but the preservation after over 2000 years is still uncanny. It is unclear what caused her body to remain in this state. There are no signs of either embalming or sainthood.

5. Saint Catherine Laboure

Saint Catherine Laboure reported her first visitation by an apparition of the Virgin Mary in France in 1830. Her tales quickly spread throughout France and then around the world as thousands of Catholics began wearing medallions commemorating her visions. According to her story, she placed her hands on the lap of Mary as the Virgin spoke to her in an empty chapel. 

She was buried after her death in 1876, and remained so until 1933, when her body was exhumed as part of her official beatification. An examination concluded that "the body is in perfect state of preservation, and its joints are still supple." Today you can visit her body in Paris and see Catherine Laboure just as she was in life—with one exception: The praying hands that you see are fake. The real ones were severed and are stored separately, in memory of the lap they supposedly rested on.

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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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