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The Weird Week in Review

All the stories have been thoroughly checked this week, and only one is an April Fool. Can you spot which one it is?

8-foot Shark Jumps Into Boat

A good day of fishing is sometimes described as fish jumping into the boat. The real life experience can be frightening. Texas fisherman Jason Kresse and two companions were about 50 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico looking for red snapper on Monday, throwing chum into the water when an 8-foot mako shark appeared- on board! The 375-pound fish began to thrash about and caused some damage to the boat. The crew could not get close enough to restrain the fish. The shark died several hours later. Kresse said the crew had to use a forklift just to get the shark out of the boat after returning to port. Fish and Wildlife officials say they will not cite Kresse for catching the shark without a permit, because the catch was the shark's doing.

Breeding the Many-Eared Cat

A Russian scientist, Vladimir Obryvkov of the Voronezh State University of Agriculture, found a stray five-eared cat. After taking it his laboratory for x-rays, he took it home to his family. Obryvkov has been studying animal anomalies for years.

Obryvkov said that the cat named Luntya also has big paws but her behavior does not differ from that of normal cats.

He also said that he wants to mate his new pet with a four-eared cat living in Vladivostok to create a new breed of these fluffy animals.

There may be a market for a breed with multiple ears, but who has time to scratch them all?

Explosion in Flour Silo Dusts Town

La Esperanza bakery in Englewood, New Jersey supplies baked goods to restaurants all over the state and beyond. On Tuesday, a load of flour was being pumped into the bakery's silo when a pipe came loose. The powder filled the air and settled over adjacent buildings and vehicles. Some witnesses thought there had been an explosion. A bakery spokesman said the mess made it look worse than it was -and that the total amount of flour spilled was probably enough to fill about ten bags. Watch video footage here.

Teenager Billed for Bleeding on Sidewalk

Taylor Petz of Peoria, Arizona, made himself a midnight snack a few months ago. The knife he was holding slipped and punctured his thigh. The teenager called an ambulance. He was taken to the hospital, but no stitches were needed. Meanwhile, the city of Peoria hired a biohazard company to clean up blood droplets Taylor left on the sidewalk in front of his home. The family received a $2,000 bill for the cleanup from the city! Half of the bill was travel time, as the biohazard company was in Tucson, over two hours from Peoria. A spokesman for the city attorney's office said that blood is a biohazard and must be cleaned up, but the city would reduce the part of the bill that the company charged for travel.

Ryanair Announces Child-free Flights

Irish budget airline Ryanair announced it will offer child-free flights on some of its more popular routes, beginning in October. The airline is already known for its controversial fees, such as a new "compensation levy" added to all tickets, and a proposed bathroom usage fee that was never implemented. The child-free flight idea was developed after a consumer survey showed that half of all passengers would be willing to pay extra to avoid flights with children. A third of passengers said they have had flights "ruined" by noisy children.

UFO Sightings Predicted for Royal Wedding

George Filer, a retired Air Force Major and the head of the National UFO Center, thinks that the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton will be viewed by more than just a billion people. There may be extraterrestrials watching as well.

"The craft seem to have an interest in anything important," Filer told AOL News. "They've been sighted recently over Libya and near the Japanese tsunami."

Filer says his center averages more than 1,000 sightings a month, and he expects to get a few UFO reports from the area surrounding Westminster Abbey, the site of the April 29 wedding.

Filer bases his prediction on increased UFO sightings over the English Channel and the royal family's interest in UFOs.

Missing Bronx Zoo Cobra Found

An Egyptian cobra that went missing at the Bronx Zoo last Friday has been found. The cobra made national headlines and even inspired a Twitter feed. It was spotted on Thursday -still in the reptile house! It was only 200 feet away from its original enclosure. Zoo workers set out bedding from rodents' cages to lure the cobra from an area of utility pipes it was hiding in. The scent attracted the snake, which was captured by venomous snake experts. An examination found the snake to be healthy. The zoo's reptile house will reopen in a few days.

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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
Original image
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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