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Tornado Power, Shape-Shifting Planes and Why You Look Like Your Spouse

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Under my Thumbprint

On shows like CSI, detectives have to scour a crime scene to pick up seemingly insignificant clues about the criminal. But, if a new fingerprinting technique pans out, all those clues could be one place. Traditional fingerprinting techniques have a tendency to negate forensic clues and possibly damage the prints. However, a gelatinous tape designed by researchers in London will pick up the print and test chemicals from it, providing clues about diet, gender and lifestyle. For example, they could tell if the criminal smoked by traces of tobacco or if the criminal was male by traces of urine on the prints.

TORNADO.jpgHarnessing Tornadoes

Tornadoes are terrifying, but one engineer says he could tweak them to generate power. By funneling excess heat from power plants, Louis Michaud could create a twister that extends into the atmosphere. As it grows, it would power fans that act as wind turbines. In an added twist, the funnel clouds could even be used to pump hot air into the atmosphere, cooling the Earth. Sounds like a solid plan as long as the cows stay out.

Help Wanted: Design Transformers

Taking a cue from the classic toys, military researchers have made a good deal of progress on shape-shifting planes. These planes have the ability to morph from wide recon planes into narrow fighters, but apparently don't have the ability to stay powered during the transition. After trying out a gel that conducts electricity or tiny power pads (both failed), the Air Force has turned to the private sector for the solution to their power problems.

Get a Tonsillectomy

In high school, one of my friends announced her plans to get her tonsils and appendix out on her 18th birthday in order to prevent infections. We lost touch before the anticipated surgery date, but if she did go through with that rather aggressive vaccination technique, she may have helped protect her sexual health. New evidence shows HIV can spread orally through the tonsils. Besides showing that oral sex can cause an HIV infection, this also can explain how AIDS spreads from a mother to her children- breastfeeding.

talking_on_cell_phone_2.jpgCell Phone Disease Debunked

It sounds like something cooked up by a local news station during sweeps month, but 4 percent of people in the UK still claim to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which causes headaches and fatigue when the sufferer is around cell phones or microwaves. Some sufferers have even complained of skin rashes, resorting to covering themselves or their houses in tin foil. Too bad it's all in the mind, according to researchers in Essex. Double blind experiments showed that humans do not respond to electromagnetic signals, so you're safe to keep talking on your cell.

To Love, Cherish and Mimic

It's always been sort of an old wives' tale that married couples look alike, but now we've got evidence to prove it. Psychologist Robert Zajonc showed participants pictures of couples in their first year and their 25th year, asking participants to judge how similar they were and the likelihood they were married. Results showed that couples are perceived to look alike, even if the observers don't know they're married. The researchers threw around diet, environment and disposition as possible causes, but empathy seems to be the reigning theory. This idea states that couples will react facially the same way to incidents and sculpt their faces that way, proving once and for all that making that funny face really can get your face stuck.Mr_peanut.png

Aw Nuts

I don't have any food allergies, but I was once late getting back to school from spring break because I had to drive a friend to the ER after our Chinese food had peanut traces, so I'm pretty sympathetic to them. That's why I'm celebrating the news that a researcher in North Carolina has designed an allergen-free peanut. The production process negates the components that cause allergic reactions, keeping allergic patients safe in tests. Not only that, the scientists say no taste has been sacrificed. Of course, it's not like victims would be able to tell.

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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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