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The Myth of 6-Pack Abs

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The storied six-pack—a lean, muscular, and well-defined midsection—is a ubiquitous goal for people who want to get in shape; people like how it looks, all the fittest celebrities have one, and it's an easy shorthand for describing a particular level of fitness that's considered an aesthetic ideal.

Louis Sepulveda, a Tier 3 personal trainer at Equinox fitness club in Darien, Connecticut, can testify as much. "Almost every client I have, during their fitness assessment, would mention wanting a six-pack—or at least having a flatter tummy," he says. But getting that kind of definition isn't a simple matter of going from fat to fit.

"Everyone, for the most part, is born with the same muscles that make up the ab complex," Sepulveda explains. "But you need to lose body fat in order for definition to show. For someone who carries more visceral fat—fat stored within the abdominal cavity—having a six-pack can be laborious."

In other words, thousands of get-ups, planks, or bicycle curls might give you abs of steel, but if you want them to pop out like Brad Pitt's in Fight Club, you'll have to eat at a deficit (a diet low in calories and high in protein) until your body has burned enough fat to reveal them. And despite all those internet ads touting "one weird trick to blast belly fat," alas, says our trainer, there's no such thing as spot-reducing: "You can't target a specific area to burn fat."

And because fat tends to come off in reverse order (the first place you store it is the last place you'll lose it), if you're unlucky enough to store extra fat in your belly, you may not be able to achieve that kind of definition without also dropping to a dangerously low level of body fat, something Sepulveda cautions strongly against.

"Having visible abs becomes unrealistic when you're striving to go below a normal level of body fat," he says. "As much as everyone hates fat, you need it to live. It's a source of energy, it supports brain and nerve function. Having very low levels of body fat can become unhealthy."

In men, extremely low levels of body fat are associated with risks including dangerously low heart rates, a decline in testosterone levels, and poor recovery. For women, too little body fat can result in amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycles), which in turn is a major risk factor for developing osteoporosis.

And much as we may appreciate the way it looks, the truth is that six-pack abs are actually pretty useless as a measure of fitness. A six-pack indicates absolutely nothing about your speed, your strength, your stamina, your flexibility, or even your level of overall health. All it means is that you have a lean enough midsection for your musculature to show—which is why Sepulveda encourages his clients to focus on goals beyond the coveted six-pack.

"I have my clients strengthen their trunk stability, working all the muscles located in the torso. Adding plank variations, rotations, chops, and lifts to your workout routine will make your abs, obliques, and lower back a lot stronger, not to mention less prone to injury," he says.

So if it turns out that a visible six-pack is out of reach for you (or if you're not interested in adopting the kind of restrictive diet it takes to get and maintain one) there are still plenty of good reasons to work that core. Having strong abs will serve you well, both in and out of the gym—and that's true regardless of whether you ever get lean enough to see them.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]