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Rats! (or the curious lack thereof in Alberta, Canada)

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We got the following note from a reader named Cindy Karpiak:

I want you guys to research why Alberta (Canada) spends hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to be christened a "rat-free province". There's numerous websites addressing the issue, and the fact that it is illegal to own rats even as pets in Alberta. I don't get all the fuss. ... We're looking at moving back to Alberta and wondering just how easy it will be to smuggle [our pet rats] in, or is the air treated so that they die on contact with Alberta air, perhaps there are there rat cops waiting for me at the border?

Indeed there are numerous websites on Alberta's longstanding aversion to rats (that's a mid-century Albertan propaganda poster pictured above), and what we could glean from the best of them is after the jump. (Apparently, it all goes back to the Black Plague.) We get the feeling, however, that Cindy already knows all of it, and what she wants is for us to start the Great Alberta Rat Revolution. No can do, but allow us three small recommendations:

1. Buy a degu. For now, at least, these rat-like creatures are still legal in Alberta. (You could apply for a rat permit instead, but you'd have to open your own zoo or research center to qualify.)

2. Read a novel. The Dominion of Wylie McFadden revolves around one man's quest to smuggle his favorite rodents into Alberta (take notes!)

3. Move to India. The Jain temple at Deshnok devoted to the full-time worship of Rattus rattus; like this Crazy Rat Man's house, it's home to thousand-strong hordes of the little guys.

Here's what the Alberta government has to say for itself:

Norway rats were first discovered on a farm near Alsask on the eastern border of Alberta during the summer of 1950. The discovery was made by field crews from Alberta Department of Health, engaged in studies of sylvatic plague, a disease of Richardson's ground squirrel. Although they were aware of the economic destruction caused by rats, provincial authorities were initially concerned that rats might spread plague throughout Alberta. Consequently, the Alberta government decided to halt or at least slow the spread of rats to the west. In 1950, responsibility for rat control was transferred from Alberta Department of Health to the Department of Agriculture. ...

Most people in Alberta had had no contact with rats and did not know what rats looked like or how to control them. Consequently, the government's initial response was to educate the public and obtain support from local governments and residents.

Preserved rat specimens were distributed to Alberta Agriculture offices to aid in the identification of rats in the 1950s. In 1951, five provincial employees whose primary responsibility was weed inspection, provided training and assistance to municipal pest control inspectors. Personnel from Saskatchewan Department of Health, familiar with rats and rat control, also assisted with training. Conferences on rat control were held in six towns in eastern Alberta and 2,000 posters and 1,500 mimeographed pamphlets, Rat Control In Alberta, 1951, were distributed to elevators, railway stations, schools, post offices and private citizens.

Rat Control In Alberta, 1951 advocated destruction of rats, elimination of rat harborages and food supplies, and rat-proofing of buildings principles which are still valid and basic for rat control today. Recommended toxicants were red squill, antu, barium carbonate, zinc phosphide, 1080, thallium sulfate, arsenic, strychnine alkaloid and warfarin. Warfarin, the first anticoagulant rodent poison, was still a new and relatively untried toxicant in 1951.

Warfarin was developed in Wisconsin, where finely-ground corn was the recommended bait substrate. However, corn was not normally available to rats in Alberta and bait acceptance was poor. A series of field trials during 1953 to 1955 showed that coarsely-rolled oats gave satisfactory results; this bait substrate is still used today. The amount of bait used in the control program increased annually until about 1958 and then leveled off with the yearly requirements varying between 5,000 and 13,000 kg of dry warfarin bait and between 660 and 4,750 litres of water-soluble warfarin.

Public education and information continued. Posters and brochures on rat control were widely distributed, displays were presented at local fairs, picnics and rodeos, and talks were presented to schools, 4-H clubs, agricultural societies, Chambers of Commerce, and to just about anyone who would listen. "Call of the Land," an Alberta Agriculture agricultural news program began broadcasting in 1953 and was used to disseminate information on rat control. Public interest and support for rat control was favorable, particularly from people who had rats. As an example, seven meetings were attended by almost 900 people in the Medicine Hat area during February 1956. However, there was some resistance. One mayor refused to cooperate because he thought the program was a red herring initiated by the ruling political party. Another mayor refused to believe that rats would threaten his town and stated that he would eat any rats within the town limits. He subsequently changed his mind when presented with a bushel of rats from a local abatoir. ...

After 1959, the number of infestations dropped dramatically; numbers vary between 36 and 216 per year (Figure 3). Surprisingly, overland transportation of rats has not been a major problem, with no more than eight infestations reported in any one year. Most infestations within the interior of Alberta consist of a single rat transported by truck or rail.

A few white rats have been brought in by pet stores, biology teachers, and well-meaning individuals who did not know that it was unlawful to have rats in Alberta. The white rat or laboratory rat is a domesticated Norway rat. If white rats escaped captivity or were turned loose, they could multiply and spread throughout Alberta just like the wild Norway rat. Consequently, white rats can only be kept by zoos, universities and colleges, and recognized research institutions in Alberta. Private citizens may not keep white rats, hooded rats or any of the strains of domesticated Norway rats.

Perhaps the greatest "problem" is that most residents of Alberta still cannot identify rats and rat signs. Hundreds of suspected infestations are reported each year by concerned citizens, but most turn out to be muskrats, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats or mice.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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