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Hometown Haunts T-Shirt Contest

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I'm from a little dot on the map called Lower Macungie Township. The township comprises a handful of towns, villages and a borough, but all that's really there is basically my mom's house, a diner and a cornfield (Ooh, we just got a Starbucks, too. Welcome to the 21st century, everyone). For some reason, our quiet little township has what seems to me a disproportionately high number of ghost stories and folk legends. I'm talking enough to fill a book.

Or at least a healthy chunk of one. Ghost Stories of the Lehigh Valley was published in 1993 "“ ghost-stories.jpgincidentally, the same year I moved to Macungie (Oooh, spooky coincidence! Boo!). The writing wasn't great and the design was worse, but for a kid with some morbid curiosities, the book was a treasure. Macungie finally had something interesting going for it.

Among the ghosts that call my town home are"¦

Bucky

Bucky is the resident ghost at a building just down the street from a friend's house. The Hensingerville Hotel has been variously been a hotel, a tavern and a private home for almost 200 years, and the whole time owners and guests have had run-ins with Bucky, a one-time owner who killed himself there. Bucky is said to be mostly helpful, and at least two people who've owned the place have said that they've come downstairs in the morning to find the ghost had started breakfast for them by heating up a frying pan for eggs or putting on a pot of coffee. But like many ghosts, Bucky liked to play tricks on the living, too. One owner claims that one night, the lights over the bar started spilling water, even though there was a bedroom directly above them and no pipes in the ceiling. The water didn't cause any damage to the plaster, and the lights continued to function the whole time.

The ghost of Minesite Road

East Texas used to be a remote and rough-and-tumble place (which is how it got its name), but its proximity to iron mines opened it up to heavy traffic along Minesite Road. No one can say exactly when, but sometime in the late 1800s, a man hanged himself in a tree along the road and has haunted the surrounding area ever since. Over the years, horse riders, wagon drivers and even modern motorists have claimed to see strange lights in the woods, apparitions on the side of the road and inexplicable problems with their rides.

Charlie

Back when the Inn at Maple Grove was still the Maple Grove Hotel and a stagecoach stop in the mine country near Alburtis, a guest was murdered on the second floor and the angry locals lynched an Indian in front of the dining room fireplace. Before he died, the Indian vowed to remain in the hotel and prove his innocence. To this day, the Pennsylvania Dutch in the area regard the place as "˜hexed." One of the owners interviewed in the book claimed the fireplace is the location of much of the unexplained activity. Some nights, the iron cooking crane in the hearth started to shake, just a twitch at first, and then continuing until the whole building was shaking. Other times, the owner would be closing up after the guests had left the dining room and would hear someone whistling tune by the fireplace. Stranger still, patrons claim to have seen a white dove materialize out of thin air, fly across the dining room and disappear.

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So there you go, a place with a ghost to person ratio of 1:1. I know you flossers come to us from around the country, and surely your towns have some legends of their own. Here's a chance to win a free t-shirt: Leave a comment recounting a ghost story from your hometown.

On Friday, I'll pick the best story and announce the winner. Weirdness and scariness are key factors for me, and I'll pay extra attention to anyone that's gone ghost hunting and actually saw something with their own eyes.

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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
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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