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The Weird Week in Review

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Eyebrows Shaved for Charity

72-year-old Si Burgher had eyebrow hairs as long as three inches. They were so long he brushed them every day. Not anymore -the Bloomfield, Illinois Rotary Club  sold people turns at trimming Burgher's eyebrows! Trimmers paid $100 each, with Burgher's wife Amy getting the first shot. The stunt raised $1,600 for PolioPlus, a polio eradication campaign. Burgher himself has donated about $7,000 over the years to the campaign to pay for polio vaccine in developing countries.

Flying Car Launched

A team of British adventures led by 45-year-old pilot pilot Neil Laughton has taken off on a 42-day trek from London to Timbuktu in a bio-fueled flying car. The Parajet Skycar is essentially a dune buggy with a fan and a paragliding wing. The car was designed by 29-year-old engineer Giles Cardozo, who will join the expedition for part of the journey. Civil aviation official will not allow the car to fly over the English Channel, but they plan to fly over the Straight of Gibraltor.

Woman Kidnaps Washer Repairman

Tracey Fox of Thornley, England bought a washing machine ten months ago and requested service for it five times. When it finally quit working altogether, she had to do without three weeks before a repairman came. The repairman told her she would have to pay for repairs, even though the machine was under warranty -and that such repairs would cost more than the machine was worth. Fox said,

"Then he was going to leave and that's when I lost it. I told him he'd have to dial 999 because there was no way I was letting him out until it was fixed.

After police were called, the situation was resolved and Currys have since offered her and her husband Terry, 44, a new washing machine.

Man Arrested After Returning Reassembled Lobster

110_lobster.JPGWalter U. Tessier of Amsterdam, New York returned a lobster to a grocery store, saying it was bad. The clerk was arranging for an exchange when he noticed the lobster was only a shell. When confronted, Tessier ran from the store carrying a bag of crab legs. When police visited him at home later, he had already eaten the crab legs. Tessier was charged with petty larceny.

Director Shoots Actor During Rehearsal

A stage production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men was in dress rehearsal Monday night in Sarasota, Florida, when an actor was almost killed by a gunshot. During the final scene, director Bill Bordy shot 81-year-old actor Fred Kellerman at point blank range in the back of the head. Bordy was shocked that the Smith and Wesson pistol was loaded. Luckily, the bullet only grazed Kellerman's head. The worst effects were the sound, which temporarily deafened Kellerman, and the tetanus shot he received after the incident. See a video report here.

Hitching a Ride to the Inauguration

150branson.jpgTwo Dutch students, Omar Kbiri and Lennard Hulsbos, found themselves on a last-minute trip to Washington, DC to watch the inauguration, thanks to Virgin founder Richard Branson! Branson was at a conference Tuesday in Amsterdam and mentioned he was flying back to the States for the inauguration. He then opened the forum up to questions via SMS. One message asked, "Can you take 2 broke students to Washington DC?" Branson answered "Yes." Kbiri and Hulsbos were taken by limousine to Branson's private jet and flown to Washington. A volunteer spontaneously offered to pick up the cost of hotel accommodations for the students.

Frenchman Speaks Non-Stop for 124 Hours

Lluis Colet talked about Catalan culture, Salvador Dali, and other subjects to break the world record for non-stop speech in Perpignan, France. Colet spoke for 124 hours straight- five days and four nights! Notaries were on hand to act as witnesses for the Guiness Book of World records. Crowds who gathered to hear Colet speak at a railway station broke into applause when he finished. It is not known if they were applauding his world record or thanking him for stopping.

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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]