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The Weird Week in Review

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Cat Saves Man from Burning Home

With most "pet saves family from fire" stories, it's easy to assume that the pet woke someone up because it wanted OUT of the house. In this case, the cat came in from outside, and it didn't even live there!

Engineer Andrew Williams was asleep when the fire broke out at his bungalow in Bracknell in Berkshire.

As black smoke filled the property, his neighbour's cat Hugo came through a cat-flap and raised the alarm by clawing at the father-of-two's face.

Rescuers said that the fire could have killed Mr Williams if he had not been awoken by Hugo. A smoke detector had been moved during work on the bungalow.

Motive for Assault: Missing Condiments

26-year-old Monique Aguet went through the drive-through of a KFC in Surprise, Arizona. She became upset when her order did not include condiments. She went inside the store to continue the argument with a store employee, and was ordered to leave. The employee followed her back outside and stood behind Aguet's car to record her license plate number. Aguet then backed up the car/ The unnamed employee banged on the trunk to let her know she was there, but Aguet continued to back up, striking the employee with the car. Aguet was arrested for disorderly conduct and suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The employee was unhurt.

Windshield Shattered by Falling Fish

Leighann Niles was driving near East Harbor State Park in Ohio when a fish fell out of the sky and broke her car's windshield! The eight-pound freshwater drum, or sheepshead, was dropped by a bald eagle flying overhead. Niles said the eagle also dropped the head of a second fish. Neither Niles nor her 5-year-old daughter were injured in the incident.

Inmate Hides Gun in his Fat Rolls

120_vera25-year-old George Vera was arrested Sunday in Houston, Texas for selling bootleg CDs. Vera was searched at least four times and passed through a metal detector twice as he was processed and transferred from the city lockup to the county jail. On Monday, during a shower break, Vera admitted to a guard that he smuggled an unloaded 9mm pistol into the jail by hiding it in his rolls of fat. Vera weighs more than 500 pounds.

Cab Driver Choked; People Locked Inside Church

A strange chain of events occurred Saturday morning in Mount Vernon, New York. A cab picked up a passenger, who tried to rob the driver by choking him while he was driving. The driver lost control of the vehicle and crashed into the River Jordan Holy Tabernacle Church. The attacker and two other passengers fled the scene. While police were investigating the incident, they found five people inside the church, which was locked from the outside. Police Commissioner David Chong said the five people were taken to a hospital as a precaution.

"What scares us about this is that the church was all locked down from the outside, so there was no means of getting out of the church for these four adults and the child," Chong said.

Duck has a Sandal

150ducksandalLucky the duckling is very lucky to have been adopted by an orthopedic nurse after she broke her leg, which left her with a right foot that bent the wrong way. Alison Morgan of Newport, Wales, performs physical therapy on the leg and had a special Roman sandal made for her by cobbler Kelvin Reddicliffe. The sandal protects Lucky's toes from irritation and further damage, and allows her to keep up with the other two ducks in the home. Morgan is trying to raise £500 for an operation to straighten and lengthen Lucky's leg.

Man Blames Cat for Child Pornography

Police investigators found over 1,000 images of child pornography on a computer belonging to 48-year-old Keith R. Griffin of Jensen Beach, Florida. He was charged with ten counts of possession of the materials. Griffin said that he left his computer on all the time, and that his cat would sometimes jump on the keyboard. When he returned to the computer, there would be "strange material downloaded". Griffin is being held in the Martin County Jail, with bail set at $250,000

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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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