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The Weird Week in Review

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Child Held for Ransom Over Pizza

Lisa Paardekooper of Darwin, Australia ordered a pizza to be delivered last Saturday, but refused to pay full price when the pizza arrived an hour late. She was on the phone with the pizza parlor trying to negotiate a discount when the pizza deliverer allegedly grabbed her four-year-old son as ransom.

Lisa Paardekooper claims the driver held Cain for 40 seconds, demanding cash. ''He said give me the pizza back or the money,'' she said. ''He stuck his hand through the gate and grabbed Cain around the wrist. I raised my fist to him ... when I raised my hand he let go of him.''

The deliverer was given the pizza and left. Paardekooper immediately called the police, who are investigating the incident.

Thief Caught On Film Stealing Camera

A man in Manchester, England climbed the wall at a shopping center and removed a £1,000 security camera. He apparently did not realize that the recorded images were not stored on the camera itself, but were sent to the security control room. The camera is gone, but police have footage of the theft. The video has been released to the public in hopes that someone will recognize the perpetrator, who is missing his front teeth.

Saddam's Military Planes Found Twenty Years Later

Iraq's missing Air Force jets have been traced to Serbia, where they are mostly in pieces. They have been cannibalized, parted out, or left to deteriorate over he past twenty years. In 1989, the planes were sent to Zagreb, Yugoslavia for maintenance. The planes were parted out and sent to Serbia in 1999, during the Croatian war for independence. Zagreb is now in Croatia. A delegation from Iraq will go to Belgrade to negotiate the return of the jets, but they are unlikely to help Iraq rebuild its air defenses. The Iraqi Air Force currently has no jets.

Celebrity Bird Attacks Police Officer

120_2A 3-foot-tall macaw named Chip is in a bit of trouble over a traffic stop. The bird, who starred in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, attacked a policeman in the course of his duties in Dover, England. The officer arrested the unnamed owner of the bird on suspicion of driving while banned. As the officer was driving the car to the impound lot, the loose bird pecked at his arms and fingers the entire journey. Chip was not arrested, but is being held by the RSPCA until his owner is released.

Too Drunk to Fly

A 65-year-old amateur pilot was arrested for flying drunk after a rescue helicopter had to guide him to the airfield in Schoengleida, Germany. He had drunk wine and beer before taking off, and continued to drink while flying.

''Come on, I know you're down there,'' he radioed. ''Where the bloody hell have you hidden yourself?''

Control tower staff say he also sang a few songs, cracked a mother-in-law joke and told them to ''pull their fingers out as I've got a party to go to''.

The airfield personnel sent a rescue helicopter to lead the pilot to the runway. The unnamed man was able to land the Cessna, and "wobbled" to his car. Airfield authorities called police, who arrested the man on his way home. He tested four times over the legal limit for driving.

One Fast Cat

150cheetahSarah, a cheetah at the Cincinnati Zoo, set a world record for the 100 meter dash Wednesday by covering the distance in 6.13 seconds. The event was held at Mast Farm, the zoo's cheetah breeding facility. The race is a remote contest between Sarah and Zaza, a cheetah at Cheetah Outreach in South Africa. Zaza is expected to run her race later this month. To compare, the human world record is 9.58 seconds, held by Usain Bolt.

Groom Fixes Teeth to Marry Dentist's Daughter

32-year-old Gordon Taylor proposed to 26-year-old Sarah Lewis and got an ultimatum. She would marry him if he got his teeth fixed! Lewis' father is a dentist, and her mother works with him. Both her parents were horrified to see the state of Taylor's teeth when he began to date their daughter. But Taylor agreed to the procedures. He wore snap-on prosthetic teeth for the wedding on the Isle of Wight, and will undergo fillings, straightening, and bleaching next.

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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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