Original image

Creepy Crawlies: 7 more little things that make life special

Original image

In case yesterday's story on horrifying parasites didn't leave you sufficiently creeped out, Chris Weber is here to tell you about seven more creepy crawlies. Afterwards, have a look at our own Ransom Riggs' latest original video: Attack of the Killer Parasites.

Remember that scene in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan when Ricardo Montalban drops a weird-scorpion spacebug into a poor guy's ear? That was fiction; these suckers are real. Here are seven parasites, ranging from common to obscure, that will make your sphincter clench with fear.

1. Pinworms

Pinworms look like little pieces of uncooked spaghetti in your poop. They're quite common: One out of three children will have them. Kids pick up the larvae while digging in the dirt, and as soon as they put their fingers in their mouths, it's home free! It matures in your intestine and then, in a miraculous moment worthy of Nova, Momma Pinworm slithers out of her host's anus in the middle of the night and lays her eggs on the surrounding skin. Having a family of pinworms camped around your butthole itches, and so people respond by scratching like hell. In the process, they get pinworm eggs under their fingernails, and the circle of life goes on.


2. Ascaris lumbricoides

Ascaris lumbricoides
is one of the largest parasites to infect humans. About a quarter of the world's population carries around this roundworm, which can grow to be as thick as a pencil and as long as two or three. Ascaris hangs in your small intestine, where it eats food passing through. A female Ascaris can fill up said intestine by laying around 300,000 eggs a day. Those babies have to go somewhere, and that's when the trouble really begins, as one expert described: "Ascaris has a tendency to wander places it shouldn't. If the conditions start to become unfavourable (e.g., the host gets a fever, undergoes anaesthetic or takes worming tablets), the worms will try to get away. If they wander down the intestine, they may be passed with the stool (giving one an awful fright the next time one goes to the toilet), [or] they may wander back up through the stomach and be vomited up (there have been cases of the worms suffocating infants by climbing up behind the nasal passages) . . ."

3. Plasmodium

No list of human parasites would be complete without plasmodium, the protozoa that causes malaria, which originally earned the nickname "jungle fever." Transmitted through the bite of the Anopheles mosquito, plasmodium takes up residence in your liver within 40 minutes. There it reproduces inside your cells. If enough of these cells burst at one time, your fever spikes. From the liver, the plasmodia can invade other organs like the spleen, kidneys, and brain. As many as 500 million people a year contract malaria, with a particularly heavy toll among children.

4. Lice

Lice come in several hundred varieties, three of which use the human body as a condominium: body, head, and pubic lice. Their preferred food is warm human blood. Eggs and baby lice are called "nits," hence the expression "nit-picking." Head lice can spread to the eyebrows, eyelashes, and beard. Their primary symptom is intense itching triggered by lice saliva. The other sign you may have crabs is brown spots in your underwear: lice droppings. Unfortunately, good hygiene can't protect you; you can win a grooming award and still have lice. "If you don't like doing laundry," one mother of three told me, "you'll be sad to have lice come into your home." In some upscale communities, salons offer a lice package so kids can get treated without having to feel the stigma of their peers' ridicule.

5. Trichinella

You can get the worm Trichinella by eating raw or undercooked pork—or bear, fox, horse, seal or walrus. However, as one insightful Stanford student pointed out, "you CANNOT spread trichinosis to others (unless they eat you)."


6. Amoebas

Amoebas are cute when they're swimming around on your microscope slide, but they can wreak havoc inside you. One illness caused by amoebas, amebiasis, is transmitted via contaminated food or anal sex. Amebiasis is very common; it kills more people than any other parasite besides the malaria plasmodium. The much rarer amebic meningoencephalitis involves amoebas eating your brain. Ninety-five percent of people with this condition die.

7. Hookworms

Hookworms are shaped like rough hooks, with bent heads that latch on to the inner wall of your intestine. Like lice, they suck your blood. Remember Jeff Foxworthy's jokes about the chronic laziness of rednecks? Well, the propensity of some rural Southerners for lying around was probably due, at least in part, to their hookworm problems. You're not going to feel like doing much work with several thousand worms inside your gut.

And now for our feature presentation...

Chris Weber is an occasional contributor to

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]