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10 Awesomely Geeky Birthday Cakes

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1. Dungeons and Dragons

Get your 20-sided dice ready because this massive cake is a feat of artistic cake magic. It was made for a birthday boy that plays in a group of D&D fanatics. The edible sculpture was created by Mike’s Amazing Cakes. If you have time, be sure to check out their website as well, because their gallery is, indeed, awesome.

2. World of Warcraft

Speaking of geektastic cakes based on role playing games, this Horde World of Warcraft cake may not look quite as professional as the D&D cake, but the details on the shield, particularly the wood grain, are pretty impressive nonetheless. From what I can gather, the creator, who made it for her boyfriend’s birthday, only does this as a hobby, not a job. It sounds like she might want to consider changing careers to do this for a living.

3. Super Mario

Here’s another amazing video game cake, starring everyone’s favorite plumber, Mario. This link is definitely worth a look, as the creator, Su Yin, actually details all the work that went into planning and creating the cake, including a step-by-step photo gallery. The work involved in a project like this is pretty incredible.

4. Zombie Girl

I don’t know what’s cooler, the fantastic zombie girl on this cake or the eight-year-old little girl that requested it. While the cake is pretty amazing, made by Barbarann Garrard from rice cereal treats and fondant, how cool is it that a girl that age would prefer a cake showing something crawling from the grave instead of a pony or Barbie?

5. Tom Selleck

What’s scarier than a little girl obsessed with zombies? Naked Tom Selleck. I have to respect the artist who created this bit of wonderment though, it’s pretty cool that she was able to make Mr. Selleck resemble a hunky Disney prince.

6. Indiana Jones

The only things missing from this great golden idol cake by Clever Cake Studio are an Indiana Jones Ken doll and a giant marzipan boulder. Even so, the fact that you can actually switch out the bag for the golden idol allows you to play the role of Doctor Jones without having to worry about death by rock.

7. Dalek

While any Dalek cake would be cool in my book, it’s a whole new level of awesome when you find one that’s over two feet tall and 44 pounds. If you eat it all at once, you’re sure to help the Dalek meet its primary goal to “exterminate!” The site has an incredibly detailed look at the cake’s construction if you’re interested in knowing how something so awesome was actually created.

8. R2-KT

Of course, you can’t talk about geeky anything without mentioning Star Wars. This amazingly realistic R2-KT cake by Mark Joseph Cakes features a ton of cake surrounded by fondant and its legs are made from rice cereal treats.  This site details the creation process, which is pretty intense thanks to the detailed paint job and assembly process.

9. Yoda

This Yoda cake is so realistic that I would be afraid to cut it for fear of suddenly being stunned by the force and beaten up by the little green man. The cake was created by Debbie Goard of Debbie Does Cakes for a seven-year-old’s birthday party. This has to be one of the most delicious of all the cakes here, as his head is made from rice treats, while the body features strawberry cake with Barvarian custard filling.

10. Storm Trooper On The Toilet

What’s nerdier than a regular Star Wars cake? One that also features bathroom humor.  While it makes sense that this was made for a six-year-old, there’s no doubt that many internet geeks will get even more pleasure out of the idea of a stormtrooper going to the bathroom than the child the cake was meant to impress. If you’re interested in getting your own Star Wars potty humor cake, better get on the phone with Aurora Cakes, the company that made this masterpiece.

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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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