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How To: Cause an International Crisis

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---A perilous (and paranoid) diplomatic climate
---Weapons of mass destruction
---Human error

First: Don't Read Your Mail
That way, you can remain blissfully uninformed about important events that you (and your staff) are likely to misinterpret. Case in point: One the night of January 25, 1995, Boris Yeltsin found himself dusting off the old Cold War-era nuclear command briefcase when an early warning radar station detected a missile rising out of the Norwegian Sea and heading for Russia. Several tense, finger-on-the-trigger minutes later, Yeltsin received word that the rocket, though real, was actually part of a Norwegian scientific mission to study the northern lights—a mission Moscow had been informed of months previously. Turns out, bureaucratic error had stalled the message before it could reach the folks over at the early warning defense system. Worse, this wasn't the first time simple mistakes have pushed the world close to mutually assured destruction.

Second: Put Off That Eye Appointment
Things are not always what they seem. And, if history is any indication, when what you see seems to be a Russian nuclear threat, you probably ought to take a closer look. On November 5, 1956, the American military received four disturbing security warnings: Unidentified planes were flying over Turkey, 100 Soviet fighter planes were spotted over Syria, a British bomber had been shot down over Syria, and the Soviet naval fleet was moving into an attack position. Taken together, those reports sounded like a prelude to a Russian attack on American allies and almost triggered NATO nuclear air strikes against Russia. That is, until further study revealed that the Soviet fleet was just doing routine exercises, the bomber had had a mechanical failure, and the "Soviet fighter jets" were actually a large flock of swans. The lesson here, by the way, went unlearned. Six years later, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States sent several nuclear-armed jets taxiing down the runway in response to an alarm triggered after an intruder was spotted climbing the fence at a defense station in Duluth, MN. Officials had to drive out onto the tarmac and flag the planes down just in time to stop takeoff after the mysterious intruder was revealed to have been a bear.

Third: Mix Work and Play
War games can be very useful tools and certainly have their place—but that place probably ought to be somewhere where they aren't mistaken for the real thing. At 8:50 a.m. on November 9, 1979, hardened warriors at four of the U.S. military's top command centers were plunged into a blind panic when their computer systems started showing a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack on the United States. Immediately, a retaliation to end all retaliations was prepped for launch. Luckily, before we fired anything, somebody decided it might be a good idea to make sure those hostile enemy missiles actually existed and made a couple of quick calls to Pacific radar stations. The result: Nada. There wasn't so much as a cloud in the sky. Turns out, a computer tape loaded with a first strike scenario war game had been accidentally inserted into a computer that was being used for real-life surveillance.

Fourth: Don't Relax
To cause a really good international crisis, you'll need to be as edgy and paranoid as possible. In 1983, that's how the Soviet Union ended up closer to the brink of nuclear war than it had been since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. To be fair, "˜83 was a really tense year. The United States had invaded Granada, putting it within spitting distance of Cuba; a bombing that killed Americans in Beirut was being blamed on Soviet forces; and the Russkies themselves had recently mistaken a passenger airliner for a spy plane and shot it down—killing hundreds of civilians. In between the hard-line rhetoric coming from the States and their own monstrous screw up, the Soviets were expecting some kind of show down. On November 2, NATO command posts around the world began moving nuclear weapons into attack positions. The Soviets knew it was time for the annual NATO training exercise, but feared this wasn't a test. After all, they'd once seriously considered using war games as a cover for a first strike themselves. For the next nine days, the U.S.S.R. was on high alert. According to some sources, nuclear-armed jet fighters were waiting on the tarmac--engines primed and ready to go--until November 11, when NATO ended what had been just a training exercise after all.

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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]