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Is Puerto Rico on the Verge of Becoming the 51st State?

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In the midst of Tuesday's mad rush of election news from all 50 states, one contest was largely lost in the shuffle: Puerto Rico's referendum on statehood, which could potentially make the Caribbean island and U.S. territory the 51st state in the union. Now that the ballots have been tallied, it's clear that a majority of Puerto Ricans favor full statehood. What's the next step for Puerto Rico and the U.S. government? Could Puerto Rico really become the 51st state? Here's what you should know.

First off: What makes a U.S. territory different than a state?

There are a number of things, but essentially, though Puerto Ricans are considered U.S. citizens, they lack representation in the Electoral College. Indeed, the closest thing Puerto Rico has to representation in the federal government is a non-voting "Resident Commissioner" seat in the House of Representatives, which is currently held by Pedro Pierluisi (D) — a position "that has as much influence as a court jester," says David Minsky at the Miami New Times.

When did this arrangement begin?

In 1917, when Puerto Ricans were officially recognized as U.S. citizens, almost 20 years after the United States military acquired the Caribbean island in the Spanish-American War. Since then, three referendums have been held — in 1967, 1993, and 1998 — but statehood has remained elusive.

So what exactly happened in Puerto Rico on Election Day?

A majority of Puerto Ricans voted in favor of becoming America's 51st state. In a two-part referendum, 53 percent of voters said they didn't want to continue Puerto Rico's current 114-year relationship with the United States. In the second part, which offered several alternatives to current U.S.-Puerto Rico ties, 65 percent of voters favored statehood, 31 percent favored sovereign free association, and 4 percent favored full independence.

Does that mean Puerto Rico is on its way to statehood?

Not necessarily. It's certainly a possible step in that direction — but "don't start trying to fit a 51st star onto the U.S. flag just yet," says Abby Ohlehieser at Slate. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives would need to approve Puerto Rico's statehood by a two-thirds majority, and though President Obama has said he would be open to the possibility of Puerto Rico joining the union, it's not clear if Tuesday's vote is enough to convince the White House to forcefully take up the issue.

Any other hurdles in the way?

Several. If the United States were to admit Puerto Rico into the union, the island would potentially be expected to embrace English as the universal language of understanding — a tall order for the reported 85 percent of Puerto Ricans who speak very little English. And Puerto Rico, which has been hit hard by the economic downturn, might be considered by politicians to be too much of a burden on the national treasury. Plus, Election Day offered a new challenge: Puerto Rico's pro-statehood governor Luis Fortuno appears to have lost his re-election bid to challenger Alejandro Garcia Padilla, an advocate of the island's current national status.

Sources: Miami New Times (2) (3)Slate (2)Deustche Welle

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]