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The Weekend Links

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Taking a moment away from odd uses of a piano keyboard, here are 13 super cool computer keyboards and 15 more that are awfully strange. (Thanks Jan!)
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This spider can't be scary - it's smiling at me! When I scrolled down I couldn't help but laugh. Yes, this smiley spider exists to mock its prey to death with a cheerful visage.
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Indeed, not all insects and related brethren are strictly creepy-crawly. In fact, some are downright desirable to meet.

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From the Annals of Too Much Time: Toilet Paper Origami.
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Don't let a reliance on social networking interfere with actual human contact - here are Seven Tips for Making Good Conversation With a Stranger for those of you who need a refresher (or for anyone - idle chit chat is the bane of most people's existence!)
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Have you ever sung along with a catchy song but felt a residual guilt afterwards because you didn't agree with its lyrics? Here's a list of 11 misogynistic songs that get a lot of love despite their questionable message.
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Flossy reader Amanda sent in this link to this panoramic screen view that neither of us can explain but both agree is really cool!
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24 hour bad news coverage on six channels about the economy, stock prices, wars, fire and famine bringing you down? Fear not! Sarah@Home (not to be confused with other Flossy contributor Sarah in CA) recommends you visit the Good News Network to get your fill of people doing things RIGHT.
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If that's not enough though to brighten your day, this tiny hedgehog will surely do the trick. Its powers of cute are infinite!

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A collection of true (and manipulated) warning signs that explain visually why you should heed their call of safety.
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Amateur Astrophotography that has resulted in some rather beautiful pictures of space (helpful for imagining you are cruising through space at Warp with young Spock and Kirk ... ok maybe that's just me)
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Who might have the best wardrobe of all time? No current actress can come close to this dame - American dancer Ruth St Denis shows off her enviable and theatrical late-Edwardian fashions.
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Extra! Extra! Read all about it: a list of 80s Bad Guys and where they are doing their evil now. You have been warned!
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If you have money to burn and plenty of different groups of people to shock, this ridiculous, possible offensive fake shark attack wet suit may be right up your alley!
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We've taken a look in the past at the world's most dangerous roads, but what about most dangerous bridges? Only one or two look truly terrifying to me, but the rest may only be dangerous to those afraid of heights!
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The Lego crazy continues: 21 movie posters ... now in Lego Vision!

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Cannibalism ... in space! It seems that the missing link in Pulsar evolution is in fact a cannibal star.

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Hope everyone has a splendid long weekend! If you're lounging around surfing the internet, don't forget to send your finds to FlossyLinks@gmail.com!

[Last Weekend's Links]

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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]

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