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Scentless Apprentice: All About Anosmia

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Sometimes in meetings we are asked to share a little-known fact about ourselves as an "icebreaker." (I hate icebreakers, by the way.) But my fact is always the same and I think it's pretty interesting: I can't smell. Now, if I stick my nose right up to an open bottle of ammonia or acetone and snort, I can smell that, but that's pretty much all I can ever smell. Which might explain why we have three dogs.

I'm not really sure how this happened; neither are doctors. If I ever had a sense of smell, I was too little to remember it, so it's not like I "remember" what oranges smell like or anything like that. I had surgery to remove some polyps (really gross) when I was in eighth grade, but all that resulted in was a completely random, gushing bloody nose that ruined my brand new Z-Cavaricci shirt in the middle of Mr. Zimmerman's science class. I had to go to the nurse and she gave me a replacement t-shirt from the lost and found. I still have that t-shirt actually; sometimes I wear it to bed. But anyway...

It wasn't until college that I found out that this problem actually has a name: anosmia. It's the absence of ability to smell. Most of my friends and family forget that I can't smell on a pretty regular basis; I suppose it's not a disability that you can really see. This happens all of the time:

Stacy's Mom: "Oooh, smell this candle!"
Stacy: "¦"¦"¦"¦"¦.
Stacy's Mom: ...Oh!! WHY do I always DO that?!

My friends aren't quite as nice about it:

Stacy's friend Lisa: "Don't you just love the smell of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies? Oh, I forgot, YOU WOULDN'T KNOW. HAHAHAHAHAAAAA!!"

It was really awkward when I worked at Sephora. People would ask me about fragrances and I didn't want to launch into this whole history about how I am unable to smell, so at first I just lied to the customers.

Customer: "What does this smell like to you?"
Stacy: "Smells"¦ vanilla"¦ish"¦ with a hint of floral"¦ and musk"¦ and citrus"¦ maybe some sandalwood? Do I detect a top note of rose hips?"

But I felt really bad about doing that, so I would just say, "Oh, I'm really stuffed up right now," and leave it at that. I was recently doing a little research on my condition and came across a few interesting facts I thought were particularly _flossy.

"¢ You can be anosmic to just one smell "“ so maybe you can smell everything else under the sun, but you absolutely cannot smell brownies. Wouldn't that be strange? Or maybe a blessing.

"¢ When people find out I can't smell, 95 percent of the time the next question is, "Can you taste anything, then?" Yep. I like things that taste really strong -- really sour, sweet, bitter, etc. I love sauerkraut right out of the can, for example. I suspect maybe I'm a congenital anosmiac (had it since birth) because it is said that those people don't have a problem with lack of taste whereas people with sudden onset anosmia often find food completely unappetizing.

anos

"¢ Notable anosmiacs include Bill Pullman, Stevie Wonder and William Wordsworth. Rumor has it that Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry's is an anosmiac, and that's why their ice cream is often so tactile. Mmm.

"¢ Some people go undiagnosed for a long time, because as children they just pretended to smell things because they thought that it was a sense you acquired as you got older. I don't know if mine was so much a case of this "“ it was more that I didn't realize how things should smell. Kind of like the first time you get glasses you're like, "Ohhh, that's what things are supposed to look like!"

"¢ Anosmia can be a sign of Parkinson's or Alzheimer's Disease.

"¢ On a somewhat-related note, phantosmia is smelling things that aren't there, kind of like having a phantom limb. It seems to often be an unpleasant smell "“ common ones are smoke, rotting flesh, vomit and poo.

"¢ On the other hand, parosmia is when you perceive an odor wrong. So maybe the scent in reality is mint, but for some reason whenever mint is in the air you smell fish.

Any other anosmiacs out there? Or Phantosmiacs or parosmiacs or any other type of "“iacs? I'd love to hear your stories.

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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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