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The Decks of the Mary Celeste, December 1872

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Our new issue is on newsstands and in mailboxes (or beach bags or bathrooms or wherever it is you do your _flossing). This week we've been sharing a few excerpts from the cover story, "The 50 Most Interesting Places in the Space-Time Continuum," by Jenny Drapkin and Ethan Trex. Today and tomorrow, we'll share a couple places that just missed the cut.

The Decks of the Mary Celeste, December 1872
In early December 1872, the crew of the English cargo ship Dei Gratia made a perplexing discovery in the Atlantic. The Dei Gratia's helmsman spotted a ship a few miles off his bow and quickly realized that it was the familiar brigantine merchant ship the Mary Celeste. Something seemed a little off about the Mary Celeste, though. Her sails were up, but they appeared to be lopsided and torn. Furthermore, while the Mary Celeste appeared to be heading for the Strait of Gibraltar, the ship wasn't really keeping a straight course.

The concerned helmsman set a course to intercept the apparently troubled ship, and when the Dei Gratia finally caught up to the other vessel after hours of observation, they discovered one of history's greatest nautical mysteries: the entire crew of the Mary Celeste had vanished.

Oliver Deveau, the Dei Gratia's chief mate, was the first sailor to board the eerily quiet ship. After poking around the decks and the holds, Deveau reported back that although the Mary Celeste was a "thoroughly wet mess" with quite a bit of standing water below decks and in the her bilge, the boat was still seaworthy. However, there wasn't a soul on board. The entire crew and Captain Benjamin Briggs, along with Briggs' wife and two-year-old daughter, were nowhere to be found.

Wherever the Mary Celeste's crew had gone, they had packed up in a hurry. Most of their personal belongings, even their pipes, remained untouched by their bunks. The ship's cargo—1701 barrels of commercial alcohol bound for Italy—was still snugly resting in her holds. Even the captain's logbook was still on board, as was a six-month supply of untainted food and fresh water. The only things that appeared to be missing were the ship's navigational equipment, some papers, and her lone lifeboat.

The baffled crew of the Dei Gratia decided to split up and sail the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar. Once they arrived safely, the British Vice Admiralty Court began an inquiry into the Mary Celeste's abandonment, and the ghostly ship became a worldwide media sensation.

The admiralty inquiry lasted three months and tested all sorts of theories. One of the early explanations that got quite a bit of traction—even the New York Times reported this one—was that the ship had been attacked by pirates who murdered the crew. There were a few problems with this story, though. Piracy wasn't particularly common in this part of the world at the time thanks to a strong British naval presence, and there wasn't any sign of a struggle on the Mary Celeste. Furthermore, pirates generally didn't just take a boat, kill the crew, and then leave it adrift at sea with a hold full of cargo.

Another explanation—also reported by the New York Times—hypothesized that the ship's crew had gotten into the alcoholic cargo and then murdered Captain Briggs and his family during a drunken rampage before fleeing in the lifeboat. (The Times breathlessly reported that ""¦some of the men probably obtained access to the cargo, and were thus stimulated to the desperate deed.") This story didn't work with the facts either, though. The crew had all been experienced sailors with impeccable records, and the alcohol in the hold was denatured, not the sort of drinkable grade-A booze that might incite a mutiny. Moreover, despite a search for the crew in ports around the world, not a single man ever turned up.

A Fit of Collective Drug-Fueled Madness?

When these mundane explanations proved to be dead ends, theorists became increasingly fantastic with their stories. What if a sea monster had devoured the crew? Wasn't this mysterious disappearance obviously the work of aliens? Perhaps the ship's flour had become contaminated with hallucinogenic ergot fungus and caused the entire crew to throw themselves overboard in a fit of collective drug-fueled madness. As one might imagine, nobody found these far-fetched theories all that compelling.

Today there are a few prevailing theories about what really happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Some historians now believe that the ship hit a waterspout, a tornado at sea, that caused the ship to take on water. Although the Mary Celeste was still seaworthy, Captain Briggs may have panicked and abandoned ship, only to have the lifeboat sink in the storm.

Another credible theory centers on the ship's dangerous cargo. When investigators unloaded the 1,701 barrels of alcohol from the hold, nine barrels turned out to be empty. These barrels were made of porous red oak, which might have allowed alcohol vapors to gradually escape until there was a small but terrifying explosion below decks. Such an explosion—or even the presence of vapors that might have exploded—could have spooked the crew into the abandoning the ship before it went up in flames.

The Mary Celeste eventually found a new owner and crew and sailed for another 12 years until her captain deliberately ran her aground off Haiti as part of an insurance fraud scheme. Despite nearly 130 years of research, maritime historians still don't know what became of the ship's crew on that fateful 1872 voyage, an uncertainty that makes the decks of the Mary Celeste one of the most fascinating places in the space-time continuum.

See Also: The Final Resting Place of the Russian Mafia, The Final Moments of the Civil War, Where Antimatter Still Exists. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are all the details.

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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]