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The Weird Week in Review

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Man Hides in Attic for Christmas

A family in Plains Township, Pennsylvania were astonished when a stranger came down from their attic! 21-year-old Stanley Carter was staying with friends on the other side of the duplex until he disappeared December 19th. The friends had reported him as missing.

"When he came down from the attic, he was wearing my daughter's pants and my sweat shirt and sneakers," homeowner Stacy Ferrance said. "From what I gather, he was helping himself to my home, eating my food and stealing my clothes."
The Ferrance family had noticed strange sounds and missing items over the Christmas holiday. Police found him on Sunday, along with a note labeled "Stanley's Christmas List" which chronicled the stolen items.

No New Year's Eve Music for Zune Users

Thousands of people who listen to music on 30GB Zune players experienced a simultaneous meltdown on Wednesday. Microsoft blamed the problem on leap year. Since 2008 had an extra day. the players ended the year one day early. Users are urged to let the battery die and then recharge it. Zune Pass subscribers may also need to sync the device with a PC to "refresh the rights to the subscription content".

Giant Turquoise Flying Rabbit

An emergency call reported a man riding a giant turquoise flying rabbit in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England last week. Instead of dismissing the call as a prank or hallucination, police, firemen, paramedics, and even a helicopter were dispatched to the location. They found the turquoise rabbit, which was a large rabbit-shaped helium balloon. There was no one found with the balloon. Police are looking for anyone who could be missing such an object.

Chasing a Robber with Car Wash Spray

150carwash.jpgAn armed robber wearing a mask confronted car wash employee Chris B. Truax at work in Portland, Oregon. Truax later said that he could tell the gun the robber used was broken or a fake. As the gunman helped himself to cash from the till, Truax grabbed a high-pressure washer wand from a pail and sprayed him. The dripping robber fled, and is still at large. Truax, for his trouble, was arrested on a 7-year-old DUI warrant when police investigated the incident.

Senior Citizen Grabs Attacker's 'Cahoochies'

An 88-year-old woman in Portland Oregon found a naked man had entered her home early Tuesday morning. According to Deputy Paul McRedmond of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, the man assaulted the woman by pushing her face into a chair.

"Before whatever plans the suspect might have had, the woman reached behind her and grabbed the man by the crotch, 'giving him a good squeeze', McRedmond said.

He added, "The man tore free and ran back out the way he had come in."

Police later arrested 46-year old Michael G. Dick, who was found by tracking his license plate number. The victim wishes to remain anonymous.

Man Sits on 40,040 seats in 48 Hours

150twining.jpgBritish Army Sergeant Terry Twining has broken a record by sitting in all 40,040 seats of the King Baudouin national football stadium in Belgium in only 48 hours. He averaged one seat every two seconds! The stunt raised over £4,000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care. Twining also donated 2,000 euros to a local hospital in Belgium. Twining performed his feat December 15th-17th, only weeks after triple hernia surgery. This is not Twining's first fundraising stunt- the Irish-born Twining has raised over £50,000 for worthy causes. Donations are still coming in at his website.

Baby born during trans-Atlantic flight to Boston

A woman from Uganda gave birth on a flight from Amsterdam to Boston on New Year's Eve. Two doctors who were on the flight assisted in the birth of the 6-pound girl named Sasha during the eight-hour flight. The mother was eight months pregnant and went into labor two hours before the plane landed. Mother and baby were taken to a hospital upon landing in Boston. Sasha is considered a Canadian citizen, as she was born over Canadian airspace, although there is no comment yet from Canada's immigration department.

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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]