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6 Times Creepy Crawlies Ended Up in People's Ears

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Earlier this week, I poked my ear canal with a Q-tip. (It says on the package you’re not supposed to use them to clean your ears; turns out, you should listen to that!) Inspired by my idiocy, I started to research the ear canal and the ear drum. Which led me to discovering some creepy crawlies that have actually taken up residence in people’s ears. This kind of horror is best borne with friends, so—after purchasing some ear plugs to wear to bed—I decided to write about it. I apologize in advance.

1. A Bed bug

According to a 2012 case report, “A 23-year-old man presented with the chief complaint of an odd sensation within his right ear. On one account, he gave the impression that his right ear was possibly blocked. In addition, however, he was convinced that there was something moving in his ear.” When the doctors examined his ear with an otoscope, they saw “a small black foreign body adherent to the central aspect of the tympanic membrane.” Repeated flushing dislodged the foreign body, which “grossly resembled an engorged tiny insect [and] proved to be a Cimex lectularius in its nymphal stage.” Yes: The guy had a bed bug nymph feeding off his ear drum (that's it above!). Aside from some irritation of his ear canal, the patient was OK; doctors noted that after the bed bug was removed, “the patient's symptoms were immediately resolved and no further ear complaints followed.”

2. A Cockroach

One night in January 2014, Darwin, Australia resident Hendrik Helmer was awakened at 2:30am by a sharp, overwhelming pain in his right ear. He suspected an insect had crawled in there while he was sleeping. After attempting to remove it himself—first by flushing his ear with water, and then using a vacuum cleaner—he went to the hospital. Doctors poured in olive oil, waited 10 minutes for the creature to die … and pulled a nearly 1-inch-long cockroach out of Helmer’s ear. "She said, 'you know how I said a little cockroach? That may have been an underestimate,'" Helmer said. “They said they had never pulled an insect this large out of someone's ear."

If you’re a fan of things that will most definitely give you nightmares, you can watch a video of a doctor removing a live cockroach from a patient’s ear on YouTube.

3. A Spider

The good news: You probably don’t swallow a ton of spiders in your sleep. The bad news: They might be crawling into your ears instead. In 2012, a Chinese woman went to the hospital complaining of an itchy ear, which she’d had for several days. When doctors examined her ear canal, they found a spider just hanging out in there. Concerned that the spider would dig in deeper if they went in with forceps, doctors chose to flush it out saline solution. Aside from being extremely traumatized, the patient was just fine.

4. A Tick

In December 2011, an Irish equine vet went to the doctor complaining of a scratching sound and irritation in his left ear, which he said he’d experienced for several weeks. "I think I have a tick in my ear," the 41-year-old vet told Christchurch Hospital head and neck surgeon Jeremy Hornibrook, who did, indeed, find a horse tick in the man’s ear. “Microscopy of the left ear showed a tick wedged in the anterior recess with its legs contacting the tympanic membrane,” aka the ear drum, “which had extensive bruising,” Hornibrook wrote in the New Zealand Medical Journal. “It was tightly attached and could not be ‘drowned’ with framycetin drops, so the ear canal was anaesthetised by injection and the tick removed with a small hook.”

Hornibrook also noted that “Ears are prime real estate for this tick, although the groin and armpits are the most common sites for infestation in most hosts.”

5. A Moth

As Parker, Colorado resident Wade Schlote was trying to get to sleep one night in June 2011, he experienced something truly terrible: A miller moth crawled into the 12-year-old’s ear, and it hurt. A lot. "I had a moment of panicking,” he said. “I was in pain. It was hurting so much I was screaming and crying.”

His mother rushed him to the hospital, where doctors were skeptical but eventually came around when they saw the moth crawling around in Schlote’s ear. And unfortunately for Schlote, it didn't want to come out. "The doctors tried numbing my ear, thinking it would help with the pain and kill the moth. That didn't work,” Schlote said. “Then they tried drowning it. That didn't work. Then they tried irrigating it. That didn't work. Finally, the doctor pulled it out with tweezers and when they did it was still alive and started flying around. … I am so happy it’s over.” Doctors caught the moth and put it in a plastic container for Schlote to take home.

6. Screwworm Fly Larvae

When Rochelle Harris returned to Britain from vacation in Peru in 2013, she began to hear scratching noises in her ear. Then came the splitting headaches and the unexplained discharge. At first, doctors thought it was just an ear infection … but then they found larvae of the New World screwworm fly (Cochliomyia hominivorax), which had chewed a tiny hole in her ear canal. Surgeons removed what they called a "writhing mass of maggots,” and thankfully, Harris didn’t suffer any serious injuries.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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