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The Weird Week in Review

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No More Butt Hole Road

The residents of Butt Hole Road in Conisbrough, South Yorkshire, England are tired of the jokes, the tourists, and the constant questions. At least one family moved out over the embarrassment of their address. So the neighbors collected £300 and had the name of the street changed to the innocuous Archers Way, named after a nearby castle. Already an internet petition has sprung up to change the name back to Butt Hole Road.

Bullet Removed After 42 Years

65-year-old Hou Guoying recently had a bullet removed that had been lodged in her face for 42 years! She was shot accidentally during the Cultural Revolution in China in 1967. Doctors told her at the time that her wound was superficial. Eleven years later, an x-ray revealed the bullet in her face. She refused surgery because of the poor medical facilities available at the time in Chongqing, China. Hou suffered from headaches for years. This year, the pain began to spread to the rest of her body, so the bullet finally came out. Hou is recovering from the surgery.

Man Uses Swan to Beat Victim

A man identified as Sebastian P. has been convicted of animal cruelty in Munich, Germany. Sebastian and a friend were drinking heavily on the bank of the river Isar when they spotted a tourist and began to make fun of his accent. As the altercation elevated, Sebastian grabbed a live swan and used it to beat the tourist. They they threw bottles and a hot barbecue at the man, who escaped with minor injuries. The swan survived and flew off. A court gave Sebastian a two-year suspended sentence.

Anchorage Man in World Beard Champion

120_traver.jpgDavid Traver of Anchorage, Alaska won the World Beard Championship on Saturday with his 20.5 inch beard. 300 competitors were in Anchorage for the 2009 World Beard and Moustache Championships, and about half were competing for the beard award. Traver's beard was dyed several colors and woven into a snowshoe shape. Traver is willing to now shave off his award-winning beard to raise money for his favorite charity, Covenant House.
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7-year-old Drives to Save Dad

Guillermo Montes was drinking and driving near Clovis, New Mexico with his 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son when he rolled the Jeep over. Montes was ejected from the vehicle. Elizabeth Kazza got into the driver's seat and drove the wrecked Jeep about three miles to search for help before a motorist noticed her struggling and responded.

"It's remarkable anybody could drive after something like that," State Police Capt. Jimmy Glascock said.

The children were treated for minor injuries. Montes was pronounced dead at the scene.

Tortoise on Three Legs and Six Wheels

150tonka.jpgA local resident found an injured tortoise along the road in San Mateo County, California and took her to the Peninsula Humane Society. Veterinarians removed what was left of her ragged left front leg. To give the red-footed tortoise mobility, they attached the chassis of a Tonka Toy truck to her underside. Now she gets along by pushing with her rear legs and steering with her remaining front leg. Vets named her Tonka after the toy wheels. John O'Dea adopted Tonka and says she is doing well and roams his vegetable garden on her three legs and her wheels.

The Man Who Sues

Despite being incarcerated at a federal prison in Kentucky, Jonathan Lee Riches has made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. He was named as the person who has filed the most lawsuit ever. So what did he do next? He filed a lawsuit against the Guinness Book!

In the injunction filed in Richland, Riches "“ who acknowledges he is receiving treatment for mental-health problems "“ said: "The Guinness Book of World Records have no right to publish my work, my legal masterpieces."

In his latest court filing, Riches wrote about how he sued Black History Month, the president of Iran and butter substitute I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!

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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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