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The Weekend Links

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Anyone who's ever picked up a bottle (or three) of "Two Buck Chuck" might appreciate this article on Fred Franzia, "The Scourge of Napa Vally." Not to be confused with Franzia boxed wines, which aren't classy but sure are good. (Thanks to Ellen from Birmingham for the link)

All I'm saying is, if we had been able to make explosions in science class such as this, maybe I would have been more interested. (Merci, Gail)

Flossy reader Jennifer took this amazing picture of a garter snake who seems to have something important to say. Anyone got a caption?

Here's some trivia for you. The tenth-ranked phrase that brought people to from Google this week: "american gladiators nude"! (Number fifty: "space porn.")

The other day, Stacy wrote a story on 6 Tyrannical Bosses Far Worse Than Yours. Let me give you a head start for the logical sequel on terrible employees.

Chuckle-worthy for moms, cringe-worthy for kids. A song of motherly reminders set to the Wiiliam Tell Overture. (Thanks Amy from the dual locales of Nashua, NH/Columbus, does that work?)

Is that your joystick, or are you just happy to see me? A giant Atari joystick. You know, for giant nerds. Wah-wahh. (Thanks to Amy in Greensboro, North Carolina)

My friends and I have a theory that Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Superbad) doesn't act, he just shows up places as himself "“ a sweet, awkward kid. Check out this hilarious interview video and judge for yourself (Side note: Is there a better chat-show name than "Between Two Ferns"?). He also has an addictive internet TV show you can watch at

Know the saying "I'm so hungry I could eat my own arm"? Well ... then there's THIS guy. (Thanks to Jill for that one)

Simply put, the most literal garage sale ever (Thanks to Christine in West Lafayette, IN, whose relatives provided this wonder)

See the origins of carpel tunnel! Terrible keyboard designs that make you appreciate the evolution of the typing pad. (Gracias to Austin from Overland Park, KS)

Speaking of technological evolution, here's a visual history of water in video games. Oddly soothing and nostalgic. (Thanks to my pal Kevin from Atlanta)

Mischief-making by the guys from Gizmodo, who used their TV-B-Gone remote power without much responsibility at the Consumer Electronics Show. A moral dilemma of the mean-but-funny variety.

See democracy in action with Flickr photos from the Iowa Caucus!

And here's a clip of Harry Truman protesting John F. Kennedy's nomination on the eve of the 1960 Democratic Convention, from Andrew Sullivan's blog.

I'm usually a little wary of Wikipedia's veracity on certain subjects (especially those missing citations) because I am often too trusting (i.e. gullible) a person. Melinda's submission of a Wiki article on common misconceptions in various fields of study makes me wonder...can anyone disprove any of these or know them to be false? If they are all true, they're pretty interesting.

If you're one of the eight people who, like me, watch The Wire (and live/die by it), you'll drool over this from the Freakonomics blog. Sudhir Venkatesh screened a few episodes with real-life gangsters. How many of you would like to sit down for a parlay with Stringer Bell? Prop Joe? Omar? Dare to dream.
I think it's time one of you guys showed some love for Mangesh by creating an action figure (or several "“ collect all 7!). It's not too far-fetched an idea for fans of PopCandy editor Whitney Matheson.

Jason offered readers a little incentive to send in links this week. Amy Hansen wins a free mental_floss t-shirt, and Janice Lambert wins a free calendar. We'll be in touch on Monday.

A big thanks to everyone who sent in links this week! Please keep it up -- Feel free to bribe or win me over in any way you see fit. If you don't see your link this, never fear "“ I'm compiling a reserves vault, so definitely keep 'em coming. And that includes your flossiest of photos.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]