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10 Initials Gone Horribly Wrong

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In 2010, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that it would be rearranging some of its subway signs because they resembled a slightly naughty bit of internet slang. The signage for the F, M, and L lines read "FML," which savvy web users know as self-deprecating shorthand for "F--- My Life." The double meaning of its signs caught the transit authority off guard, but they've worked quickly to switch around the letters.

New York's subways are hardly the first victims of acronym problems, though. Let's take a look at ten other organizations, places, and businesses that have realized a bit too late that their initials meant a little more than they had intended.

1. WTF

In 2009, the Wisconsin Tourism Federation's biggest problem wasn't finding a way to attract more people to the metropolitan Kenosha area; it was the realization that its initials mirrored the slang abbreviation for "What the F---?" The WTF from America's Dairyland has been around since 1979, so it likely predates the vulgar WTF. In the end, though, you can't fight an internet meme. The organization changed its name to the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin.

The WTF's only consolation must be that it's not alone. In 2008, the North Carolina DMV allowed drivers whose license plates contained "WTF" to swap out their tags free of charge. The DMV also had to change its website; the sample plate pictured on the site was "WTF-5505."

2. DOA

In a move that must have been unsettling for thousands of Iowa's seniors, the state changed the name of its Department of Elder Affairs to the Department on Aging, or DOA, in 2009. Something's telling us that the change hasn't helped Iowa's elderly sleep any easier. The organization now goes by IDA, for Iowa Department on Aging.

3. AIDS

When Joan Woehrmann started her ambulance company in Whittier, CA, in 1955, she hit on a pretty brilliant acronym: AIDS. The letters stood for "attitude, integrity, dependability, and service," which are all great qualities for an ambulance line. The name was also easy to remember in times of crisis.

She didn't foresee the name eventually signifying one of the greatest medical catastrophes of the century, though. By 1985, the LA Times reported that Woehrmann's drivers were being taunted and that the public mistakenly started to think that the line only transported AIDS patients.

Finally, she had enough and changed the line's name to "AME," even giving up the ambulances' customized line of "AIDS 1" and "AIDS 2" license plates.

4. SUX

While FAA identifiers for airports aren't technically acronyms, the three-letter codes can give rise to their own headaches. Just ask the Sioux City Gateway Airport, which the FAA saddled with the unfortunate designator "SUX." Airport authorities petitioned for a new code, and the FAA—and this is not a joke—offered them "GAY" as a nod to the "Gateway" part of the airport's name.

Sioux City decided that switching to GAY probably wouldn't save them much sophomoric taunting, so officials decided to make the best of the SUX situation. Now the airport markets playful t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Fly SUX."

SUX might not even be the worst airport code. According to a 2008 LA Times story, Fresno's is FAT, and Perm, Russia's is PEE. The big winner has to be Fukuoka, Japan, though. We'll let you guess how that one gets abbreviated.

5. SLUT

In 2007, Seattle opened a new streetcar line connecting the South Lake Union neighborhood to the city's downtown. While the project was officially called the South Lake Union Streetcar, local residents began ribbing it as the South Lake Union Trolley, or SLUT. Although the city and the line's developers did what they could to dispel the notion that the line had a bawdy name, residents still refer to it as the SLUT; in 2007 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer even reported that a coffeehouse was selling t-shirts that read, "Ride the SLUT."

6. CCRAP

In 2000, delegates of Canada's United Alternative convention needed a name for their newly formed political party. They came up with Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party, which in addition to taking roughly six minutes to pronounce was abbreviated CCRAP. Organizers quickly realized the blunder and changed the party's name to the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance.

7. WPPSS

In 1998, the Washington Public Power Supply System chose to change its name to Energy Northwest to discourage people from pronouncing its unfortunate acronym as "Whoops!" The old name left the utility open to quite a bit of taunting in 1983, when the WPPSS defaulted on $2.25 billion worth of bonds. Whoops indeed.

8. POOF

In 1990, the Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida decided it had heard just about enough kidding about its acronym, POOF, which resembled an old offensive term for a homosexual man. The musicians changed their name to the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.

9. The C-word

In 2002, Microsoft had to do a little rearranging on the fly. It quickly and quietly changed its ribald "Critical Update Notification Tool" to the more family friendly "Critical Updated Notification Utility."

10. NIC

What's wrong with NIC? In English, nothing. In Arabic, a whole heck of a lot. When the Coalition Provisional Authority began planning new Iraqi armed forces in 2003, they originally called them the New Iraqi Corps. They hit a big snag, though. As ABC News reported, in Arabic "nic" is "a colorful synonym for fornication." The coalition quickly changed the name to the New Iraqi Army.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
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]

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