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Things I Learned In Utah

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I started this post three weeks ago, on the way back from a whirlwind weekend in Park City, Utah. If you're looking for stuff to do in the Beehive State, a better source of suggestions came from readers in response to my initial entry, "When in Utah..." For now, let me offer a few tidbits picked up on my journey, live on tape delay.

If you're reading this near the Wyoming-South Dakota border, I'm 37,000 feet above your head. My left foot is tapping furiously to Rick Allen's contagious and odds-defying drumbeat from Def Leppard's "Let's Get Rocked." This is one of 1,600 songs made available to me through Delta's in-flight entertainment system.*

This foot tapping was not a problem until the in-flight beverage service placed a Coke precariously close to my trusty iBook. I'm very worried about a spill and the subsequent stickiness.

adrenalize.jpgLet me pause to pound my soda.

This rendition of "Let's Get Rocked" is from Rock of Ages, a Def Leppard anthology I didn't know existed. My last Def Leppard CD was Adrenalize, off which "Let's Get Rocked" was the first single. They played this number at A Concert for Life, the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute "“ a strange choice for an AIDS benefit unless you think "rocked" means "educated on the finer points of HIV transmission."

I know I possessed this album from 1992 to 1997, but don't remember bringing it to college. Ten years is a long time to not own something, and so I've ascribed Adrenalize a possibly unwarranted sense of nostalgia.

Adding to the list of entities about which I'm overly nostalgic: the state of Utah. I was only there for parts of three days, and only left an hour ago. Most of the weekend was dominated by scripted activities: rehearsal dinner, wedding ceremony, cocktail hour, reception, passing out completely winded seconds after returning to our hotel, brunch. These were all a great deal of fun, but not fodder for an article on a trivia website. We did manage to squeeze in some sightseeing between family obligations, so let me show you what I saw.


Utah's state bird is the sea gull. As the legend goes, these birds saved Mormon pioneers from the horrors of crop-eating crickets in 1848. There is some debate over this story's legitimacy, but it's a far cooler reason to anoint a state bird than my own state of New Jersey's reasoning. In 1935, the Eastern Goldfinch earned this status because, as the NJ Senate resolution puts it, "Forty-four of the States have already designated State birds."


Utah has some interesting alcohol laws. According to, "if a restaurant derives more than 30% of its profit from alcoholic beverage sales, it can lose its (liquor) license." Real beer can only be purchased at state-owned liquor stores "“ and is marked up 75% (a six-pack can cost $10). More widely available is "near beer," with 3.2% alcohol by volume. This drives a lot of traffic to Wyoming, where prices are normal. (By the way, that is not my hand holding the Polygamy Porter. I found that image on Allan Willis' blog, "Are You My Wife?")


A luge is tiny. As Jerry Seinfeld joked, "The luge is the only sport I've ever seen that you could have people competing in it against their will, and it would be exactly the same." One of many lessons learned at Utah Olympic Park, a shrine to the Games of the Nineteenth Winter Olympiad.


Ski jumping is just as cool without snow. I spent much of my free time watching the Australian Ski Team doing flips into a swimming pool during practice. I submit that this variation on ski jumping be incorporated in the Beijing Games.


Dumb & Dumber was actually filmed in Park City, not Aspen. Though we now know the beer here does not, in fact, flow like wine. The Aspen scenes were a combination of Park City, Utah, and Breckenridge, Colorado.

behindeveryman.jpgFellow mental_floss writer David Israel is a great novelist. During my trip, I read Behind Everyman "“ and you should, too. Worthy of all the great press it received. Polish this off before the movie comes out.

Thanks again for all your recommendations and advice. We did get to see the Mormon Temple, the Great Salt Lake, Saltair and Karl Malone Toyota. But I'll have to make it out that way again.

*This might sound like paid product placement; I assure you it is not. I would much rather be watching the Yankees-Red Sox game, but the satellite TV portion of the in-flight entertainment package is not working right now. Nevertheless, Delta landed sky miles ahead of my expectations. Before last week, I did not know they were still in business, let alone streaming Def Leppard's greatest hits..

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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]