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The Weird Week in Review

Ned Kelly's Head Possibly Found

The remains of famed Australian outlaw Ned Kelly were identified from a mass prison grave and returned to his family earlier this moth, with the exception of his head, which was missing. Now 74-year-old New Zealander Anna Hoffman has come forward and says she has Kelly's skull, given to her years ago by a security guard while she was visiting Melbourne. Hoffman has a collection of more than 20 human skulls. Forensic investigators will conduct DNA tests on the skull to determine if it is Kelly's, although an examiner says it's a long shot.

Cow Stuck In Tree Rescued By Firemen

A farmer in Cumbria, England, noticed one of his cows was missing, and found that it had toppled ten meters down an embankment. The cow didn't fall to the bottom, as its fall was broken by a tree growing out of the hill. The Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service was called, and firemen were a bit surprised to be asked to get a cow out of a tree. They used a winch and other specialized equipment to remove the cow from the tree. A veterinarian checked the animal out and declared she was fine after her misadventure.

Wisconsin Cow Patties Scarce Due To Drought

The drought that has gripped the midsection of the U.S. this summer has far-reaching ramifications. The Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival in Prairie du Sac is finding it hard to scare up enough quality cow patties to throw. Cows tended to stay near the barn for food and shade, and manure didn't dry out in the sun as much as it should have. Organizers have only collected a third of the usual number of chips. Since they keep unbroken patties from previous years, they have a reserve supply they will have to dip into.

Student Asked to Change His Name for School

Three-year-old Hunter Spanjer is deaf and talks with his hands. In the S.E.E. (Signing Exact English) language, the gesture that means his name violates his school's weapons policy. Grand Island Public School wants Hunter to change his name so he won't have to use the sign. The sign may look a bit like a gun, but Hunter's name is a slightly modified sign to designate it as his personal identifier, in which he crosses his fingers. His fingers still look too much like a gun for school authorities. The National Association of the Deaf has been notified, and is expected to send lawyers to talk to officials from the school.

Lost Woman Looks for Herself

A bus driver alerted police and emergency personnel when one of the tourists went missing. The excursion to Iceland's Eldgjá volcanic canyon was put on hold for hours while a search was carried out.

However, the search was called off at 3 am when it turned out that the missing woman had been on the bus all along and even participated in the search for herself, mbl.is reports.

Before reentering the bus after the stop at Eldgjá, the woman had changed her clothes and freshened up, resulting in the other passengers not recognizing her.

According to information from the Coast Guard, a helicopter was ready to be sent to the area to assist with the search but the plans were put off due to foggy conditions. Around 50 people participated in the search on vehicles and by foot.

The unidentified woman hadn't recognized herself in the description of the lost woman, as her clothing had been described incorrectly.

Lion Hunt in Essex

A big cat sighting in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, England had authorities on the prowl for about 24 hours. Residents reported seeing a "lion" roaming the neighborhood on Sunday evening, and one person gave police a fuzzy picture of the cat. Officials called in zoo experts and a heat-seeking helicopter for the search, but turned up nothing. Police called off the search the next day, saying that they believe the creature was actually a wildcat or a big house cat. They say many doctored photographs were circulated on the internet, but those were not the original picture that police were using.

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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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