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Recent Inventions in Our Battle With Snow

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As you no doubt heard, we had somewhere between 50 and 50 million inches of snow in Washington, D.C., this winter. All a person could do for much was sit around and look at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's website for inventions that could make all this snow more bearable next year.

Something like underwear with built-in gloves

Two women from Ohio "“ which had its own share of snow trauma this year - were recently granted a patent for an undershirt with built-in mittens, to protect a person against frostbite by making sure there is no exposed skin in the wrist/hand area, and to protect the same person against losing another pair of gloves. You can hear a mother's lament in the patent application: "Gloves and mittens traditionally have the disadvantages of needing to be carried separately from the coat or jacket, and so frequently are lost." The application then describes other glove-securing devices "“ like strings and grommets "“ and why these devices need to be improved on. They are cumbersome, and "“ worse "“ they don't prevent skin from encountering winter. It is convincing (obviously, since the patent was granted). The one drawback: according to the patent application, the garment is really only meant for children. Luckily, I'm small. It's on sale here.

Battery powered heated eyewear

But wait, my face is still cold, even though my tiny child-like hands are now warm. Four words solve that problem: Battery powered heated eyewear. A man from Michigan was granted a patent for said heated eyewear in 2008. The patent application makes clear the versatility of this invention, establishing that "eyewear" may mean prescription or non-prescription eyeglasses, sunglasses, goggles, helmets, or "any other type of apparatus that may be worn by a wearer for any conceivable purpose such as for skiing, skydiving, hunting, paintball or other entertainment or interactive games, safety, combat, infrared or night-vision, driving or riding vehicles, welding or any other type of construction work, any type of laboratory work, police work, space travel, etc." Space travel? These glasses are not only practical, but exciting!

A motorized snowboard

Since civilian space travel surely won't happen while the airports are shut, it's best to think of staying warm while riding atop a motorized snowboard that functions like a motorized scooter, but it works on snow and it's obviously cooler. An Indiana man was granted the motorized snowboard patent in 2004 "“ and one fails to understand why motorized snowboards have not taken off. Where are the flying motorized snowboards we were promised?

Better shovels

Our needs are closer to the ground right now, though, and with the cars that need to be dug out we look for the most inventive of snow shovels. The patent office database has many promising snow-shovel related patents: this one is for a shovel with a flexible blade that is designed not to scratch cars; another is for a two-handled show shovel; a third has a rough surface and a "foot receiving recess member" that appears to be a place for your foot to go so you don't kick the blade and break the shovel. Which is very useful, considering that pile of broken shovels we've kicked into submission.

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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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