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Holocaust Hero Chiune Sugihara

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Chiune Sugihara was born on January 1st, 1900, and lived to make his mark on the twentieth century. Thousands of people owe their lives in part to his willingness to buck authority. For his efforts, he was imprisoned by the Soviets and fired from his job by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

That's not the way Japanese children of his generation were raised. Sugihara walked to the beat of a different drummer even before the events that made him famous, when he went against his father's wishes and failed a medical school entrance exam -on purpose. Instead, he enrolled in a Tokyo university where he was recruited by the Japanese Foreign Ministry.  Sugihara was assigned to Japanese-occupied Harbin, in Machuria, where he perfected his English, learned Russian, and joined the Greek Orthodox Christian church. As his career was taking off, Sugihara's sense of justice led him to protest the way the Japanese military treated Chinese citizens. Instead of getting rid of the talented diplomat, the Foreign Ministry transferred him several times. He was eventually reassigned to Europe.

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Sugihara was sent to Lithuania (with his wife and children) to open a new Japanese consulate in March of 1939. Only a few months later, Hitler's forces invaded Poland and thousands of Jews fled to Lithuania to escape persecution. In 1940, the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania ahead of the Germans, who were also advancing on the small nation. The Russians ordered all foreign diplomats out of the country, but Sugihara and Dutch consul Jan Zwartendijk stayed behind. Zwartendijk came up with a plan to help the Jewish refugees get out and emigrate to a couple of Dutch islands in the Caribbean, but any travel visa would also have to be approved by the Soviet consul and by Sugihara, as the refugees would have to travel through Russia and Japan.
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Sugihara wired the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo to get approval for the plan, but he was denied several times. The consul in Tokyo told him to issue no travel visas at all!

Sugihara had a difficult decision to make. He was a man who was brought up in the strict and traditional discipline of the Japanese. He was a career diplomat, who suddenly had to make a very difficult choice. On one had, he was bound by the traditional obedience he had been taught all his life. On the other hand, he was a samurai who had been told to help those who were in need. He knew that if he defied the orders of his superiors, he might be fired and disgraced, and would probably never work for the Japanese government again.

180sugitrainSugihara discussed the plan with his wife Yukiko and decided to risk his career and his entire future by defying his superiors. The couple then spent 29 days issuing travel visas, up to 300 a day, as thousands of refugees stood in line at his office. Yukiko would prepare and register the visas while Chiune Sugihara would sign and stamp them, hour after hour, without breaking for meals. They would work late into the night until Yukiko would massage her husband's weary hands in preparation for the next day. Sugihara was under orders to leave, which he could no longer delay. The family departed on September 1st, but he kept signing visas even as he boarded the train. Sugihara then tossed his official stamp out to the crowd, as he hadn't time to stamp them all. Watch a video account with commentary from a survivor and Yukiko Sugihara.
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The Japanese government was quite unhappy with Sugihara's disobedience, but they postponed his punishment because they needed his talents during the war. Sugihara was reassigned to the consul in Germany and then to Romania. He was arrested by the Soviets at the end of the war and the entire family spent 18 months in a POW camp in Romania. On his release, Sugihara returned to Japan, where he was fired from the Foreign Ministry. The family fell into poverty as Sugihara worked as a door-to-door salesman, a translator, and eventually a manager for a Japanese trading company office in Moscow. He kept a low profile and only visited his wife and children in Japan about once a year. Saugihara never spoke of his deeds during the war. The Foreign Ministry acted as if he never existed when  Jewish refugees inquired as to his whereabouts.
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It is estimated that 6,000 Jews were able to leave Lithuania for the east because of the travel documents Sugihara prepared. The became known as the Sugihara Survivors. The refugees traveled through the Soviet Union to Japan, where they stayed for months. Some traveled on to the United States, others to Shanghai, China, and some to the Caribbean islands they had originally planned to escape to.

260sugihara-warhaftigOne of the Sugihara Survivors was Joshua Nishri, who later became the Economic Attache to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo. In this position he was able to track down Sugihara and let him know, after almost 30  years, that his efforts during the war paid off for many thousands of refugees. Sugihara visited Israel the next year and spoke to many more Sugihara Survivors. In 1985 he was given the country's highest honor, as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem named him Righteous Among the Nations.
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Sugihara died in 1986. He wasn't well known in Japan until his funeral drew interest because of the many foreigner visitors who came to pay tribute, including the Israeli ambassador to Japan. When his countrymen learned of his heroism, a memorial park was built in Yaotsu-cho, Sugihara's birthplace. The Sugihara Memorial Garden stands at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A statue of Sugihara was erected in 2002 in the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles. The memorial shown in a picture by Alma Pater is in Vilnius, Lithuania. In the 21st century, some estimate that the original visa holders have 80,000 descendants. That is the greatest memorial of all.

See also: The Legacy of Sadako

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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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