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The Quick 10: Happy Bloomsday!

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Happy Bloomsday!! If you're not a James Joyce aficionado (or if you're not familiar with obscure holidays), June 16 is the day all of the events in Joyce's Ulysses take place. The name comes from Leopold Bloom, the main character in the novel. To honor Bloomsday and James Joyce, here are a few fun facts about one of Ireland's (and the world's) most beloved authors.

1. Why June 16? Of all the days in the year, you have to wonder why Joyce chose that exact date for Ulysses to take place. Well, the answer is actually pretty simple: it's that day in 1904 when he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

2. He and Nora had quite the passionate love affair, as evidenced by the many erotic letters they wrote one another and saved for posterity. One of the letters sold for nearly half a million dollars at Sotheby's in 2004. Here's a sample of Joyce's writing for you - and this is one of the tamer bits: "The two parts of your body which do dirty things are the loveliest to me."

3. Together, Joyce and Barnacle had two children (and at least one miscarriage). Although we don't know much about Giorgio Joyce, we know quite a bit about Lucia Joyce, who was a pretty fascinating person. She studied ballet with Isadora Duncan, dated Joyce's contemporary Samuel Beckett, was declared schizophrenic, and was a patient of Carl Jung's. Most Joyce scholars believe Lucia was the muse for Finnegans Wake. It was Jung's belief that both Lucia and James suffered from schizophrenia and said the two of them were both headed to the bottom of a river, but James was diving headlong into it and Lucia was falling against her will.

4. Joyce had a couple of pretty serious phobias.

His cynophobia (fear of dogs) stemmed from an attack by a neighborhood dog when he was just five years old. And his keraunophobia, fear of thunder and lightning, formed when his religious aunt told him that thunder was an angry God sounding his wrath at humans.

5. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married on June 16th in honor of Bloomsday.

6. It may be hard to believe, but the word "quark" first appeared in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Scientist Murray Gell-Mann had been thinking about calling the unit "kwork," but when he found the invented word in the Joyce classic, he knew he had discovered the spelling he wanted to use. Here's what he had to say about it:

"In 1963, when I assigned the name 'quark' to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been "˜kwork.' Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word 'quark' in the phrase 'Three quarks for Muster Mark.' Since "˜quark' (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with "˜Mark,' as well as "˜bark' and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as "˜kwork.' But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the 'portmanteau' words in Through the Looking-Glass. From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry "˜Three quarks for Muster Mark' might be 'Three quarts for Mister Mark,' in which case the pronunciation "˜kwork' would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature."

7. Joyce may have had the gift of writing, but he certainly didn't have the gift of gab. When he met Marcel Proust in 1922 at a dinner party, the rest of the party-goers listened anxiously to what the two literary geniuses would chat about. The eavesdroppers were likely disappointed, as Proust and Joyce spent the entire conversation talking about their ailments—Joyce had constant headaches and eye trouble; Proust's stomach was giving him troubles. Then they both admitted neither of them had read the other's works. As the story goes, they shared a cab on the way home and Proust scampered out of the cab without paying his half of the fare.

8. More evidence that Joyce didn't get along with his fellow writers too well: William Butler Yeats desperately wanted Joyce to like him and offered to read his poetry. Joyce rolled his eyes and replied, "I do so since you ask me, but I attach no more importance to your opinion than to anybody one meets in the streets." Ouch.

9. Joyce had earlier considered titling another book Ulysses in Dublin. He ended up calling it Dubliners instead.

10. His final words are said to have been, "Does nobody understand?" He died on January 10, 1941.

Are any of you celebrating Bloomsday? What's on your agenda?

Stacy Conradt is on maternity leave, but she submitted a bunch of Quick 10s before she became a mom. She'll be back later this summer. You can read all her previous stories here.


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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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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]