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Catching Up With The Plague

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The plague. It's not just a disease of the past.

This highly contagious killer is striking again across the globe. Nearly 3,000 people caught the plague last year, and hundreds have died. It's an ugly and painful death "“ if you're really curious and really brave, here are the some examples via Google Images.

Just days ago the WHO (not that "The Who," the World Heath Organization) issued a warning, pointing out that precautions need to be taken in case the plague is used as a biological weapon. If an attack like that happened, it most certainly wouldn't be the first time the plague has been used as a weapon of war. For the last 700 years, the practice has been more common that you might think.

The Corpses of Caffa

In 1346, The Tartar Army was doing its best to capture Caffa, a walled city on the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine. They weren't having much luck, especially after an outbreak of the plague started killing them off. So in what can only be called a strange bit of inspiration (and one of the first instances of biological warfare), the Tartars gathered up the plague-infected corpses and catapulted them over the city walls, using the flying bodies to spread the disease. After the plague started killing off the city's inhabitants, the Tartars easily took Caffa. But although they may have won the battle, the Tartars really lost the war. The newly infected fled the city of Caffa to Italy, spreading the plague everywhere they went, effectively starting the outbreak of Black Death that would kill off much of Europe. [Image courtesy of StupidBeaver.com.]

Unit 731

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During the Second World War, Unit 731 "“ a secret unit of the Japanese army "“ was created for the sole purpose of turning illnesses into weapons of mass infection. Masterminded by General Shiro Ishii, this unit conducted horrible experiments on humans, including vivisections without anesthesia (ouch) and unnecessary amputations. General Ishii was especially fascinated by the plague and numerous possibilities it held as a weapon of war, but testing proved difficult. Japanese scientists tried spreading the plague to unsuspecting victims via the water system and through aerosol, but nothing worked. Until, that is, they went back to the basics of the disease.

Someone came up with the idea of using the animal behind the original spread of the plague: the flea. Ceramic bombs filled with infected fleas were dropped on several unsuspecting cities in China (where in a sad twist of fate, the bubonic plague is said to have originally started before making its way to Europe and the rest of the world). The resulting epidemic killed thousands. In all, Unit 731 would be responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million people. [Image courtesy of BU.edu.]

The Cold War Race to the Plague "“ USSR

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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union ramped up its efforts to find a use for diseases like the plague. This was nothing new, as they had been stockpiling battle-ready bio-terror weapons for decades. During the mid to late 20th century, the Soviet scientists not only came up with a new strain of the plague that was resistant to both vaccines and antibiotics, they found a way to mass produce it. Former Soviet officials say they had 1,500 metric tons of plague ready at all times for use in their intercontinental ballistic missiles. At all times! Soviet research on bio-terror weapons continued well into the 1990s before being shut down by the government. No word on what they did with the stockpile of plague, but in theory, it should all be dead by now. In theory.

The Cold War Race to the Plague "“ USA

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The Soviets weren't alone in their race to weaponize the plague. For decades, the United States tried to create a plague bomb (and a gay bomb, among other things). Their efforts were decidedly less successful than the Soviets. Scientists said they had numerous problems with production and were unable to overcome the challenge of controlling the disease once it had been created. The U.S. is said to have ceased production of the plague and shut down its offensive biological weapons research during the 1970s.

Holding Tucson Hostage

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In September of 1978, Tucson, Arizona, Mayor Lewis Murphy started getting threatening letters. Unless demands were met, the sender warned, he would release bubonic plague-carrying fleas on the hapless city. Among the demands was a $500,000 dollar ransom, food for the poor, and for a local hospital to resume performing abortions. The threat of the plague was enough for Mayor Murphy, because he sent the police to deliver the money. But when they arrived at the delivery site, no one showed up. The sender of the letters is still unknown.

* * * * *

If all these attempts at weaponizing the plague aren't enough to keep you up at night, then how about this: In 1995, a man in Ohio with "suspect" motives was able to buy plague bacilli using fraudulent means through the mail. In the southwestern U.S., there are reports of extremist groups capturing plague-carrying animals. You might be perfectly healthy now. But just remember, someone out there has the plague, and wants you to catch it.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. She won't always be this scary.

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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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