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4 Parasites We Wouldn't Mind Hosting, After All

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It's parasites week here at mental_floss, which we kicked off two days ago with the release of our newest video, "Attack of the Parasites." Now, while it's true that there are all kinds of compelling reasons to avoid becoming infested with parasites -- especially by the kinds that cause things like river blindness and elephantiasis of the genitalia -- there are also a few reasons to make nice with our tiny, opportunistic compatriots. Here are four.

1. Pseudacteon, the "decapitating fly"

Nobody likes fire ants. Where I grew up in Southern Florida, they were a major nemesis to unfettered, shoeless outdoor romping; one false step could mean a foot covered in biting, welt-inducing fire ants. In fact, ever since they were accidentally imported from South America via cargo ship in the 1930s, they've spread like an annoying, predator-less plague from coast to coast, infesting at least 18 states. So far, the only measures introduced to deal with them have been stopgap at best -- sprinkling poison on the mounds, for instance. That is, until now.

ant1.gifMeet Pseudacteon, a parasitic fly from South America. Pseudacteon, like most living creatures, loves to reproduce. The important distinction between it and other flies, however, is where Pseudacteon lays its eggs: inside the heads of fire ants. Get ready for an awesomely grody cycle-of-life: the larvae develop by feeding on the muscle and nervous tissue in the head. After about two weeks, they cause the ant's head to fall off by releasing an enzyme that dissolves the membrane attaching the ant's head to its body. The fly pupates in the detached head capsule (pictured above!). Hence: the decapitating fly! Currently, industrious agricultural scholars are importing them from South America in the hopes that they'll do rid us of our fire ants. Godspeed, little decapitators.

2. Worm therapy

A rare bit of good news from the world of gastrointestinal maladies: swallowing the eggs of a certain type of parasite worm may actually help cure Crohn's disease. The basic theory is this: in countries where people's exposure to parasites is high, disorders of the immune system like Crohn's, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes are rare. In ultra-sanitized industrialized nations like the U.S., they're common. According to researchers, we may have hygiened our way into a few diseases that certain types of parasites actually help prevent, and by re-introducing them into the body -- that is, with "worm therapy" -- we may actually be able to combat those conditions.

Specifically, treatment with the eggs of the intestinal parasite helminth Trichuris suis may be a safe and effective treatment for Crohn's disease, according to the results of a small, preliminary trial conducted at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. T. suis is not a natural human parasite, but primarily affects pigs.

3. The blepharipa schineri fly

cat2.jpgIf swallowing worm eggs isn't your thing, then maybe you can get behind this: the fuzzy, half-inch-long blepharipa schineri does for the gypsy moth what the decapitating fly does for the fire ant. (Well, it doesn't actually decapitate the moth, but the end result is the same: no more moths. It achieves this by laying eggs in pre-moth gypsy caterpillars, where they hatch and prevent them from growing into moths.)

What's so terrible about gypsy moths? Just ask a park ranger: gypsy moths eat the leaves of some of our most popular shrubs and trees, from oak to beech to poplars. In the Eastern U.S., the moths are well-established over at least 60 million acres, defoliating and killing hundreds of varieties of trees. If you don't like the sound of that, you just might like the sound of what the fly does to the moth:

A parasite of the gypsy moth, the B. schineri fly kills unlucky gypsy moth caterpillars that accidentally eat fly eggs while munching on leaves. A gray-black speck about the size of a thumbtack point, the fly egg hatches inside the caterpillar's stomach. The transparent B. schineri maggot that emerges will later poke holes in the caterpillar's gut, then wriggle its way to the nerve cord that runs the length of the body. While the gypsy moth caterpillar transforms into a pupa--a pre-moth that slumbers in a silky, loosely woven cradle--the B. schineri maggot feeds on the host's innards, slowly killing it.

Gross? Sure. Useful? Definitely. Lucky for us, moths are this fly's only breeding ground.

4. It Makes the Ladies Happy

Quite literally: the Toxoplasma parasite, found primarily in cat feces, is known to have a mood-altering effect on humans, which differs depending on the sex of the human. In a study conducted by parasitologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague, some infected women were likely to become more outgoing and warm-hearted, whereas some infected men became more jealous and suspicious. (Not everyone is mood-altered by cat poo; it's a small, though statistically significant, percentage.) When it's not changing our moods, the Toxoplasma is trying to spread itself by making rats who come into contact with it act fearless, which makes it easier for them to be caught by cats (who then become infected, etc).

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