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Putting My Returned Tax Dollars To Good Use

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Our house was built in 1923, and most of it is in wonderful shape. We love our house"¦ except for the kitchen and one of the bathrooms. They're both extremely tiny, which I could deal with, but the linoleum is just hideous. It's not quite the same in both rooms, but it's pretty similar: a perfectly pee-yellow background with a brown design etched in. The brown is just the right shade to make it look like there's always dirt in the crevices of our floors. Our friends must think we're disgusting. And there's a point to mentioning the pee-yellow color too. You might remember that we have three dogs. Most of the time they're pretty good about going outside, but when they pee on the kitchen floor, you really have no warning that it's there until you step in it with your bare feet. It's disgusting.

Anyway, 'tis the season for tax returns, so we finally decided it's time to spruce up the ugly bathroom. Isn't it funny how quickly home improvement projects can get out of control?

It started out fairly simple "“ we thought we'd replace the tile on the walls. The tile that came with the house was ivory and just looked dingy all of the time. Well"¦ if we're replacing dingy ivory, we might as well replace the toilet and the vanity, because they're both ivory too. It would look funny to have white and ivory in the same bathroom. Oh, and also, the bathtub is ivory. So, we tore out everything and bought a bathtub and a toilet this weekend (nothing says 'I'm a homeowner now' like buying a toilet and getting excited about it). Well, while we have everything out of the bathroom, it might be a good time to go ahead and replace the ugly linoleum on the floor. So yesterday we started scraping that up. We got through ugly yellow linoleum, subfloor, ugly faux-marble linoleum, subfloor and a nice layer of glue before we discovered pretty hardwood floors underneath like the rest of the house has. That's quickly motivated us to skip the tile and restore the floors to their original splendor.

Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all of this, my husband decided that he would go ahead and replace plaster in the older part of the bathroom with drywall.

So, needless to say, this is what our bathroom looks like as of yesterday:


Actually, that's a lie. Since then, that little wall that juts out on the right has been removed and the old bathtub in the picture now resides in our backyard with the old toilet (yeah, we're THAT house now"¦).

On the plus side, at least we have another bathroom in the house to use. We have some friends who remodeled their bathroom and had to walk across the street to the gas station to use their restrooms for an entire weekend.

Please tell me this has happened to you - you planned some small little improvement to your house/condo/apartment that quickly spiraled out of control. Please tell me this"¦ and tell me that you eventually completed your project and it turned out awesome and was so totally worth it.

"¦OK, and tell me if it was a complete disaster, too. I guess it's best that I'm prepared for the worst.

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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]