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At the Libraries: Reshelving 25,000 Books

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Every week, Miss Kathleen provides links to a variety of library-related items. If there's something fun going on in your local library, leave us a comment!

All librarians get patrons who like to share bits about their lives with us. Like, say, in this instance: "Old Man: Do you have books on essential body oils? Like the kind I buy in the store and put on my arms? I put some in my soup the other day and it sure didn't taste good. I put a lot of things in my soup." (Via Love the Liberry.)
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Let's put it all into perspective, though. The TRUE librarian nightmare is stacks falling over and books going all over the place. I'm sorry to report that it actually happened, at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. No one was hurt, but "25,000 books need to be put back in order and reshelved." Ahhh!!! [Image credit: Terre Haute Tribune-Star.]
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Ever wonder how many books there really are in the world? (Titles, not copies.) Think you could Google it? Well, you can! Because Google decided that they know. Find the answer and read how they came up with it here.
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But, as Huffington Post happily reminds us, there's a lot of crap books out there you shouldn't waste your time reading. If you enjoy a way-harsh takedown some celebrated authors, check out HuffPo's latest punching bags. Guess whom this sentence describes: "Third-rate Pynchon desperate to impress with quantity rather than quality." Jonathan Safran Foer and Jumpha Lahiri, don't read this!
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But if you prefer to read for pleasure and not necessarily for literary value, well, here's a way to add more pleasure: Jezebel's reading-drinking game! When reading Raymond Chandler: "Drink every time someone drinks."
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Farewell, libraries? Newsweek sounds yet another death knell. I haven't had the stomach to read it yet -- tell me if it's good news or bad news!
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Well, libraries have a back-up plan if we don't shelve books anymore: job-hunting centers! Free internet, printing ability, great resources, supersmart people -- why not? Check out a possible prototype from the Bay Area.
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Come out of the closet, my fellow Young Adult book-readers! The New York Times has made it okay to admit that you like children's and teen books. Grab your copies of Mockingjay (http://www.amazon.com/Mockingjay-Final-Book-Hunger-Games/dp/0439023513) and hold them up with pride!
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Speaking of pride, do you have a local librarian that you are proud of? Someone who you know does an outstanding job (besides me, of course!)? Well, show them that you care by nominating them for the I Love My Librarian award. Winners get $5,000 cash! (Okay, so I changed my mind -- you should nominate me!)
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Last week we talked about investing in some library fashion. Well, one thing I wear all the time, because of both the fluctuating temperatures in the library and how sweaty I get at Storytime, is a cardigan, n'est pas. But let's say you want the look of a cardigan, but it's not cool enough to warrant one? Here's the Million Dollar Idea from kidlit blogger 100 Scope Notes: the cardigan t-shirt. Here's one mockup, but there are plenty more on his site, just waiting for you to buy one!
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Oh, the glorious things one can find on the internet. But you know there's always more out there -- if you follow a great library blog, site, or twitterer, please share it with me! I need more updates in my life! Hit me at atthelibraries@gmail.com or here in the comments.

See previous installments of At the Libraries here.

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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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