Happy Birthday to Bob Barker, Frank Sinatra and the Motel Inn

December 12 has been a rather eventful day throughout history. You may know about some of today's bigger historical events, such as Juan Diego seeing the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531; the first trans-Atlantic radio signal being received by Guglielmo Marconi in Newfoundland in 1901; and Delhi replacing Calcutta as India's capital in 1911. But you probably don't know about many of today's notable births and less well-known historical events, including"¦

1. Both Anne of Denmark and Marie Louise of Austria were born, the former in 1574 and the latter in 1791. Anne was the daughter of King Frederick II of Denmark and wife of King James VI of Scots, while Marie Louise was Marie Antoinette's great-niece, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Empress of France.

2. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was born in New York City in 1745.

3. In 1805, the abolitionist and journalist who founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and who was editor of the radical newspaper The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison, was born.

4. Gustave Flaubert, who gained lasting fame with his first novel, Madame Bovary, was born in France in 1821.

5. The first king of the Netherlands, William I, died in Berlin in 1843 at the age of 71, just three years after abdicating the throne. Fifteen years later, Jacques Viger, the first mayor of Montreal, also died at age 71.

6. The architect Bruce Price was born in 1845. Although he was an American, he is most well-known for the stations and hotels he designed for Canadian Pacific Railway. His daughter, Emily Price, became famous as the etiquette author Emily Post.

7. In 1866, Alfred Werner, a Swiss chemist and professor who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1913, was born.

8. The first black congressman, Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina, took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1870.

9. 1876 marked the birth of Alvin Kraenzlein, an American athlete. Kraenzlein was the first sportsman to win four Olympic titles in a single Olympic game (1900, Paris).

10. Robert Browning, the British poet and playwright, died in Venice, Italy, in 1889 at the age of 77.

11. Herman Potocnik, aka Hermann Noordung, was born in Pola, Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia), in 1892. Noordung was a rocket engineer and a pioneer of cosmonautics.

12. In Paris in 1904, Baron Nicolas Louise Alexandre de Gunzburg was born. He would later become editor-in-chief of Town & Country as well as fashion editor at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar.

13. Frank Sinatra, singer and Academy Award-winning actor, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915.

14. The American cartoonist best known for developing the look of Archie Comics in the '50s and '60s, Dan DeCarlo, was born in 1919. A year later, Fred Kida, another American comic book and comic strip artist was born in New York City.

15. Bob Barker, the nineteen-time Emmy Award winner and former host of The Price is Right, was born in 1923.

16. Motel Inn, the first motel, opened in San Luis Obispo, California, in 1925.

17. Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939, after a successful career as an actor, screenwriter, director, and producer, most famous for his roles in The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and Robin Hood.

18. The five-time Grammy Award-winning singer, United Nations Global Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization, and former U.S. Ambassador of Health, Dionne Warwick, was born in 1940.

19. A six-block tract of Manhattan real estate was accepted as the site of U.N. headquarters after it was offered as a gift by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

20. The satirist Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 and Three Short Stories of Utter Annoyance, died at age 76 in 1999.

21. Keiko, the world's favorite killer whale, died in a Norwegian fjord in 2003.

And for all you readers born on December 12, happy birthday! Does this date hold special significance to anyone else?

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
Original image

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]