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New Uses for 5 Old Pests

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Doctors, criminologists and even manicurists have been busy putting smaller, less cuddly members of the animal kingdom to work. From monitoring the water supply to treating callused feet, here are some examples.

1. Bluegill Fish Enlisted in War on Terror

During a meeting in 1960, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley presented Japanese Emperor Akihito with bluegill fish. It was a gift the Japanese people wish they never received. Since its induction to Japanese fisheries, the bluegill bred rapidly and killed native species. What's worse, the Japanese generally find its taste repugnant. [Image courtesy of Earthling.]


While it's marginally more popular in the United States, it's still not the freshwater fish of choice of foodies. But it is the fish of choice for the U.S. Army. Researchers created IAC 1090 Intelligent Aquatic Biomonitoring System, which uses eight juvenile bluegills to detect change in the water. Each fish resides in its own stall about the width of a mail slot. Sensors monitor the fishes' breathing and send the data to computer program, which analyzes the results. If six of the eight show abnormalities, the computer pages a technician. Officials swap out bluegills—perfectly matched for the task because they are sedentary and sensitive to contaminants—so the fish aren't affected by their duties for long periods of time. Currently New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco use the fish to protect the water sources—the fish in New York alerted officials to a diesel leak before it became calamitous. [Note: Some might claim that fish aren't pests, but my definition of pests is rather inclusive.]

2. Release the Wasp Hounds!

Training dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs, or chemicals takes months and costs thousands of dollars. But University of Georgia researcher Glen Rains and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Joe Lewis discovered that wasps could easily replace dogs to detect bombs, chemicals, and drugs. The researchers created a handheld device called the "Wasp Hound," which is a 15-inch cylinder with a vent at one end and a camera connected to a computer. When the wasps—a parasitic variety called Microplitis croceipes—smell their target they congregate at the vent, alerting the humans. Rains and Lewis claim the wasps can also sniff out food toxins, crop fungus, bodies, drugs, and even 2,4-DNT, a volatile component in dynamite that dogs struggle to smell.

The wasps only cost $100 per unit and take about a half hour to train. Using basic Pavlovian methods, researchers associate the target smell, such as a crop fungus, with food so the wasps want to locate the fungus. However, they only work for 48 hours before researchers release them.

3. They're Gonna Suck that Pain Right out of Your Knee

leeches.jpgHippocrates believed that bloodletting controlled the blood humour, reducing illness and preventing death. Until the 19th century, physicians used leeches to bleed patients and cure diseases such as acne, cholera, the plague, the flu, smallpox, gangrene and hemorrhaging (I know, it sounds counterintuitive to cure excessive bleeding by bleeding someone.) In modern medicine, bloodletting with leeches has little use other than reducing blood pressure and healing bed sores—though most doctors feel modern prescriptions are just as effective (and less icky). [Image courtesy of Antiquescientifica.com.]


However, researchers from Germany's Essen-Mitte Clinic discovered leeches sooth achy joints. Slap four leeches on your knee and after 80 minutes, the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis melts away. Of the 16 patients in the trial, the 10 who received leech therapy felt instant relief after application, and the comfort lasted for four weeks. The control patients continued experiencing pain. Researchers claim the leeches' saliva works as an anti-inflammatory.

4. Crime-fighting Bees

When Nigel Raine decided to study how serial killers track their victims, he placed tiny RFID chips on honeybees. Raine hypothesized that serial killers forage for victims much like predatory animals, such as sharks, or pollinators, such as bees. The RFID chips showed that bees pollinate plants near their hive, but not too close. It appeared the insects created a buffer zone between the hive and their feeding grounds—this protected the hive from predators and parasites. In the same way, serial killers feel comfortable preying in their neighborhoods, but not too close to their homes.

So how will the police use this to find their serial killers? By creating a model of hunting, which criminologists can use to understand how serial killers work and geographically profile them. The model might help police track serial killers from crime scenes back to their homes.

5. Feed Your Feet to Fish

doctorfish.jpgRemoving tough foot calluses has never been easy. Manicurists use files and razors to shave off dead skin. John Ho—owner of Yvonne Hair, Nail and Tan Salon—spent $40,000 to stock his Northern Virginian spa with 1,000 doctor fish or Garra rufa, which are tiny and toothless. For 15 to 30 minutes, patrons soak their feet in warm water while about 100 doctor fish nibble at their dry skin. Some compare the tingling sensation to the feeling of a foot falling asleep. After the fish feast on calluses, a manicurist massages and rubs lotions into the feet just like a regular pedicure. [Image courtesy of Doctor Fish Massage, Inc.]


Detractors think that most people will shy away from a fish pedicure because letting fish eat your feet is widely considered gross. But Ho has sold about 5,000 doctor fish pedicures, and spas in Turkey and throughout Asia offer the unique treatment to an increasing number of consumers. Ho hopes to offer full body doctor fish treatments to help people suffering from skin ailments and plans on selling franchising rights to his doctor fish pedicures.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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