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Swords into Plowshares: Peaceful Weapon Recycling

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And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. -Isaiah 2:4

The familiar Bible verse is repeated in the book of Micah. There are those who are doing just that, whether they draw inspiration from Isaiah or simply from a desire for peace and a safer world. Here are eight projects that make deadly weapons into something to inspire that desire in all of us.

1. Shovels from Guns

Artist Pedro Reyes collected 1,527 guns from the citizens of Culiacán, Mexico by offering coupons for appliances and electronics in exchange. He used the weapons for a project called Palas por Pistolas, in which Reyes had the guns melted down and recast into 1,527 shovel heads to be used to plant 1,527 trees all over the community. Culiacán, which has a high rate of gunshot deaths, also has a botanical garden that commissions artists for community enrichment projects.

2. Furniture from Mines

Naissaar Island in the Gulf of Finland had a large factory that produced marine mines for the Soviet Army. The explosives were burned when the Soviets left the island, leaving thousands of casings behind. Estonian sculptor Mati Karmin has used scrap metal as an art media for a large part of his career. He uses those marine mine casings to create furniture and other useful objects, like light fixtures, bathtubs, and fireplaces -Karmin even made a fully functioning toilet from a mine casing!

3. Reliquaries by Al Farrow

British artist Al Farrow uses guns, bullets, and other military items to construct religious buildings in miniature: churches, synagogues, and mosques, as well as full size religious items and symbols, such as reliquaries and menorahs. The art is a statement about the role of religion in war and other atrocities.

4. Throne of Weapons

The 15-year civil war in Mozambique ended in 1992. By then almost a million people had died as a direct result of violence, with millions more maimed, displaced, or starved. Weapons had been shipped to warring factions from countries all over the world. In 1995, the Christian Council of Mozambique set up a program called “Transforming Arms into Tools” to turn some of those weapons into art as a memorial and a reminder of the horrors of war. One of the sculptures is the Throne of Weapons by artist Cristovao Canhavato consisting of guns originating in seven different countries. Image by Flickr user rvacapinta.

5. Vest of Bullets

Ross Rodriguez works in 2-dimensional art: photography, drawing, and printmaking. But he stepped into 3D territory in 2005 when he created the work Bullet Proof Vest from 30-caliber rifle shells.

6. Memorial Sculpture

The Peace Art Project Cambodia was launched in Phnom Penh in 2003 to gather weapons from thirty years of war and turn them into works of art. The project was founded by artist Sasha Constable and small weapons specialist Neil Wilford, both British citizens. Students used scrap metal and recovered weapons to create everything from small sculptures to furniture to large monuments.

7. The Gun Sculpture

In 2001, artists Wallis Kendal and Sandra Bromley took 7,000 guns of all kinds, from small handguns to rocket launchers, and fused them into a monolith called The Gun Sculpture. The purpose of the piece is to encourage discussions about violence. The artwork has toured all over, most recently as an installation at the United Nations complex in Vienna, Austria, where it was part of The Art of Peacekeeping exhibit last summer.

8. Megatons to Megawatts

In perhaps the most encouraging recycling program ever, the Megatons to Megawatts project pays Russia for weapons-grade uranium and turns it into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants in the US. So far, the program has eliminated the equivalent of 16,000 nuclear warheads! In addition, the Russian Federation receives an influx of cash they desperately need and fewer worries about nuclear disposal, while the US has downblended enough uranium into fuel to replace three years of crude oil imports. Image by Flickr user Mike_tn.

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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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