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The Quick 10: 10 Cool Corn Mazes

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It has been a few years since I've made my way through a corn maze (a Maize Maze, to some), but these 10 have inspired me to seek one out this year.

1. The Milk Farm maze in Dixon, California, is the world’s biggest corn maze according to Guinness’ 2009 survey of the place, and at 45 acres, it’s two acres bigger this year! It’s so enormous it has a Starbucks stop in the middle so you can re-energize for the way out... if you can find it, that is.

2. The Cherry Crest Farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, could enter their mazes in Guinness as world’s largest works of corn art, because they’ve been making impressive images with their corn mazes since 1996. This year’s theme is “Outdoor Adventure” and celebrates scouting – you can see past years’ themes (Liberty Bell, Lost in Space, Noah’s Ark) on their site.

3. This one is from last year, but its Brian-and-Stewie-Griffin-shaped paths are worth a mention. The owner of Connors Farm in Danvers, Massachusetts, is such a big Family Guy fan that he mowed his maze in their likenesses. Fox gave him the OK to do it, and why wouldn’t they? Free advertising doesn’t get much bigger than that. The theme this year, by the way, is Clint Eastwood.

4. If you’re more of a Deadliest Catch fan than a Family Guy fan, don’t worry, there’s something for you, too – the first Captain Phil Harris Memorial Corn Maze in Tumwater, Washington. His sons were there for opening day on September 11.

5. Well, the Twilight craze has officially gone too far. Last year, to commemorate the opening of New Moon, Black Island Farms decided to capitalize on the hormones of teenagers everywhere by offering two Twilight-themed mazes: Team Edward and Team Jacob. And they’re doing it again this year for Eclipse. OMG.

6. If I lived anywhere in Michigan, I’d be steering clear of this one. A 20-acre clown-shaped maze almost certainly means (in my warped mind) that a clown will be jumping out to terrify you at some point, and I couldn’t function with that threat hanging over my head. But kudos to Crane Orchard for a lovely design.

7. This one is old, but so random I had to mention it: The David Archuleta corn maze. It was 2008, and while other corn mazes were doing Obama and Sarah Palin (really), this farm in David’s home state of Utah thought they could stand out from the crowd by portraying the American Idol contestant instead.

8. I bet this Ohio farmer is regretting last year’s maze (pictured). This year, Little Darby Creek in Milford, Ohio, has chosen to represent Buckeye football instead.

9. A Charles Darwin maze? Count me in. You could probably spend several hours lost in his beard alone. That was last year – this year’s Mike’s Maze in Sunderland, Massachusetts, will wind you through a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.

10. When McDonald’s wanted to get the buzz out about their new McCafe products a couple of years ago, they paid a farm in Lincoln, Nebraska, to carve a corn maze in their honor. Once people found their way out of the maze, they received coupons for free lattes.

Have you been to any of these? Or do you have an even better one near you?

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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]