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Strange Geographies: Freaks in Mayberry

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Mount Airy, North Carolina is known to most tourists as the birthplace of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry, where his titular sitcom was set -- and indeed, if you walk down its main street, as I did last week, you'll find nothing but Andy Griffith memorabilia: tee-shirts in every window, restaurants named for its characters, Barney Fife's face peering at you from life-sized cutouts. They even pipe the Andy Griffith Show theme song into the air on a semi-continuous loop (I still haven't been able to get it out of my head). But in the 19th century, Mount Airy was home to someone considerably more famous. Two people, actually: Chang and Eng, the legendary conjoined twins, who after years of touring the world with P.T. Barnum, married a pair of local sisters and settled in Wilkesboro, a small farming community just on the outskirts of Mount Airy.

A community stuck happily in the 1950s, where today many of the 1,500 descendants of the world's most famous sideshow freaks reside. It's as strange a juxtaposition of culture as I've ever run across.

Along the main drag in town, you'll find lots of signs like this:

But a few miles outside of town you'll find this sign:

As the sign above notes, the twins were born in "Siam," in what is now the city of Bangkok, to a poor fisherman and his wife. They were not the first conjoined twins in recorded medical history, but they are unique in that they were allowed to live -- many children with such defects, especially in 19th century Asia, were simply killed at birth -- and that the term "Siamese Twins" originated with them.

Their names mean "right" and "left." As teenagers they were purchased from their widowed mother when an enterprising American ship captain spotted them swimming, and after years of successful touring with the captain and later with P.T. Barnum, they settled in what they deemed the most beautiful and peaceful place they'd encountered in all their travels: North Carolina.

When they applied for citizenship, however, they were told that they needed a last name. Having only ever been known as Chang and Eng, they were stumped until the man behind them in line, Fred Bunker, offered them his name. And so they became the Bunkers of Wilkesboro, and from the 1840s-70s, they had 21 children there with their wives, the sisters Sarah and Addie Yates.

They bought a thousand-acre farm and six slaves and became gentlemen farmers. Each couple had a house of their own, and they would spend three days at one house and the next three at the other, either Chang or Eng alternating as guests in the other's house. Two of their children fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. They were avid churchgoers, and the White Plains Baptist Church, where they attended services and where they are buried, still operates today (that's it behind the Chang and Eng roadside sign, pictured above).

The graveyard is full of Bunkers -- all descendants of Chang and Eng -- as is the community itself.

Perhaps in an effort to reconcile the bizarre juxtaposition of celebrity in Mount Airy, every year the Andy Griffith Playhouse in town puts on a show called The Wedding of the Siamese Twins, which details some of the more salacious and comedic aspects of the many compromises that the twins and their wives had to make in their respective relationships. (It's perhaps best not to dwell on this aspect of their lives overmuch.) Their story, in any case, is a fascinating one -- and in some ways it's a uniquely American one, too. So maybe it's perfectly fitting that Andy and the Siamese twins shared the same stomping grounds.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]