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The Weird Week in Review

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Garlic Salt Used to De-ice Roads

Tone Brothers Inc. is a spice producer in Ankeny, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines. The company has donated 18,000 pounds of garlic salt to the city for use in de-icing roadways. The garlic salt would have otherwise gone to a landfill. City officials say road crews have been mixing the garlic salt with regular road salt, and that it melts ice just fine. However, the scent tends to make road workers hungry!

Gorillas and Their Mist

Chessington Zoo in London has issued an apology to guests after giving the gorillas a Christmas treat of Brussels sprouts. The seasonal sprouts are highly nutritious, but the gorilla farts caused horror among people around them.
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Gorilla keeper Michael Rozzi said: "We feed the gorillas brussels sprouts during the winter because they are packed with vitamin C and have great nutritional benefits.
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"Unfortunately, an embarrassing side effect is that it can cause bouts of flatulence in humans and animals alike.
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"However, I don't think any of us were prepared for a smell that strong."

The zoo has taken the sprouts off the menu while the zoo is open to the public. The gorillas will enjoy them when the zoo is closed on Christmas Day.

No Cake for Adolph Hitler Campbell

The ShopRite food market in Greenwich Township, New Jersey refused to decorate a birthday cake for a three-year-old in the manner his parents wanted, with his name: Adolph Hitler Campbell. The store also will not make a cake bearing the name of Heath and Deborah Campbell's second child, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, who will turn two in February. There is also a third child named Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell. A spokeswoman for ShopRite said the cake request was inappropriate.

The Campbells said they wanted their children to have unique names and didn't expect the names to cause problems. Despite the cake refusal, the Campbells said they don't expect the names to cause problems later, such as when the children start school.

Armed Robbers Demand Egg Beater

150eggbeater.jpgAccording to police in Plant City, Florida, Robert Thompson and Taurus Morris entered the home of a man they knew and threatened the victim with a knife and a pistol. They demanded that the man turn over his metal egg beater! When officer found the men outside the home, the egg beater was in Thompson's back pocket. Thompson and Morris are being held on armed burglary charges.

Foot Found in Baby's Brain

Sam Esquibel was born October first just hours after an ultrasound picked up what doctors believed to be a brain tumor. Three days later, pediatric brain surgeon Paul Grabb prepared to remove the tumor, only to find a small foot growing inside the baby's brain! He also removed parts of another foot, hand, thigh, and what appeared to be intestines. Doctors are yet unsure if the organs are teratomas (tumors in which stem cells form body parts) or fetus in fetu (a parasitic twin). Sam is doing well and is expected to recover completely, although he will be monitored for more tumors.

Cat Wears Contact Lenses

150ernestcat.jpgErnest is a 15-year-old cat who lives at a shelter in Godshill on the Isle of Wight. He suffers from entropion, a condition where the eyelids roll inward and cause inflammation. Surgery might correct the condition, but veterinarians were concerned about how such an old cat would react to an anesthetic. The solution? Contact lenses! The lenses protect Ernest's eyes from his eyelids. Before, he had trouble seeing where he was going, but now has a new lease on life, according to shelter workers.

Man Who Snatched Wig Will Have Toupee

An unnamed man was arrested in Taipei after he snatched the hairpiece off a politician's head. Chiu Yi, a Nationalist Party member of parliament, said he felt like someone had pulled his pants down in public. The wig snatcher was a supporter of former Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian, who was released from jail only a day before. Chiu is an opponent of Chen. The assailant was arrested and released after paying $452 in bail.

"With that kind of bail, it means the crime isn't too severe," the Control Yuan publicist said. "But it's unclear what the name of the crime should be called."

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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