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Flu Epidemic vs. Flu Pandemic: What's the Difference?

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mask.jpgAt this point in the news cycle, it may be prudent to define "flu epidemic" and its far scarier sibling, "flu pandemic." "Epidemic" means simply that a sudden outbreak of the virus is spreading rapidly and affecting many people at the same time. In the UK, the National Health Services define it as when more than 400 people per 100,000 consult their doctor or go to the hospital with the flu or flu-like symptoms each week. In the US, a "flu epidemic" is defined by a percentage of deaths due to the flu or pneumonia each week. Flu epidemics happen all the time, virtually without anyone noticing: Each year on average, between 250,000 and 500,000 people die from the flu, according to the World Health Organization; in the US, an estimated 36,000 people die annually from flu-related illness.

But a flu epidemic does not mean that Pestilence, everyone's favorite Horseman of the Apocalypse, has ridden into town on his white horse and is busily cutting down healthy humans like so much grass.

Many of those flu epidemic cases can be mild, especially if caught early enough to treat with an antiviral like Tamiflu, or are lethal predominantly to the elderly, very young children, or individuals with already compromised immune systems.

A "flu pandemic," however, does mean that Pestilence has moved in and is setting up shop. A flu pandemic has two main characteristics: That it's a new strain of the virus, meaning that few people, if any, have resistance to it, and that it's managed to work its way to more than one continent.

For those reasons, a flu pandemic can be extremely deadly. The World Health Organization has defined six stages of progression leading to a pandemic flu: Phases 1 through 3 see largely animal infection, with minimal human sickness; Phase 4 is sustained human infection; Phase 5 is human-to-human contact in at least two regions; and Phase 6 is pandemic, with widespread human infection. Right now, with this current bout of swine flu, we're at Phase 3, where the flu is causing sporadic outbreaks in limited areas "“ meaning things aren't too bad. we're at Phase 4.

"Limited transmission under such restricted circumstances does not indicate that the virus has gained the level of transmissibility among humans necessary to cause a pandemic," says WHO. Moreover, we've been at Phase 3 before, in the recent past, and Flu pandemics have actually occurred about three times every century since the 1500s. But with globalization having exploded in the years since the last one, a flu pandemic now has to the potential to kill 2 to 7.4 million people worldwide, according to WHO.

(If you want to take your mind off that scary sentence, let's talk etymology. The word "epidemic" was first used by the poet Homer, the Greek preposition "epi," meaning "on," married to "demos," the noun for "people," meaning something like residence, or living in one's country. It later took on its medical meaning after Hippocrates employed the word as the title of one of his medical treatises. For awhile, epidemic was a handle given to any collection of symptoms, from diarrhea to fevers, that affected a single area over a discrete period of time, but after the Middle Ages and the epidemics of the plague, it came to mean the outbreak a single, defined disease in an area.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]