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3 Weird Disasters Involving Food

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The Food and Drug Administration has issued a number of dangerous food recalls in the last few years. But there was a time when food didn't just attack us after we ingested it. Some foods just cut out the middleman and created wide-scale disasters without contaminating a single colon.

1. The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

A 50-foot high tank of sweet syrupy goodness stood over the North End of Boston when the massive steel behemoth burst open on an unusually warm January afternoon and violently drizzled over everything in its path, killing 21 people. The viscous liquid created quite a disturbing sound as it coated two city blocks. A Boston Herald reporter described how the sweet syrup tidal waves created a "muffled roar [that] burst suddenly upon the air." It also moved quite fast as it slithered through the town into a destructive fist that flipped houses and buildings, knocked over horses as if they were tasty slices of French toast and even smashed an elevated railroad structure "like an eggshell." If you're suddenly thinking about making an IHOP run, seek counseling immediately.

2. The London Beer Flood of 1814

In 1814, Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery in London constructed a brewing vat that was 22 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter, with an interior big enough to seat 200 for dinner — which is exactly how its completion was celebrated. (Why 200? Because a rival had built a vat that seated 100, of course.)

After the dinner, the vat was filled to capacity. Unfortunately, they overlooked a faulty supporting hoop. Yup, the vat ruptured, causing other vats to break, and the resulting commotion was heard up to 5 miles away.

A wall of 1.3 million gallons of dark beer washed down the street, caving in two buildings and killing nine people by means of "drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes, or drunkenness."

The story gets even more unbelievable, though. Rescue attempts were blocked and delayed by the thousands who flocked to the area to drink directly off the road. And when survivors were finally brought to the hospital, the other patients became convinced from the smell that the hospital was serving beer to every ward except theirs. A riot broke out, and even more people were left injured.

3. The Wales Tapioca Freighter Time Bomb of 1972

tapiocaTapioca might sound like an innocent treat that's the favorite of toothless infants and toothless elderly the world over, but the right conditions can turn it into a bulky ship destroyer. The crew of the Swiss freighter Cassarate were hauling 1,500 tons of the stuff when a fire started in some timber in the upper holds. The freighter docked in Cardiff, Wales, so firefighters could extinguish the blaze the crew had kept under control for more than 25 days. But the fire wasn't the ship's biggest problem. The water from the firefighter's hoses seeped into the cargo hold, and the fire started cooking the tapioca. The food swelled to massive size and raised concerns that 500 truckloads of the dessert treat could buckle the ship's supports and sink it. Fortunately, crews were able to stamp out the fire and cool down the pudding before it could do any real damage to the ship's supports, the town's docks or the crew's blood sugar levels.

[The story of the beer flood was written by Ian Lendler and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.]

Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer, reporter, humorist and ghostbuster living in Texas. He can be found on the web at dannygallagher.net, on MySpace and on Twitter.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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