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The Field of Dreams and Five Other Movie Pilgrimages You Can Make

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Whenever I’m traveling and people find out where I’m from, 90 percent of the time, the reaction is, “Iowa! Have you been to the Field of Dreams?” I’m a little embarrassed to say the answer is no, I've never set foot in Dyersville. But thanks to the purchase that was made earlier this week, I still have a chance to go.

Photo via Field of Dreams Movie Site

The land where the 1989 movie was largely filmed had been in the Lansing family since 1906. Though the Lansings put it on the market for $5.4 million last year, they were willing to wait for just the right buyers. They wanted new owners that would preserve the land, let the Ghost Players squeeze nine innings in from time to time, and allow tourists (65,000 annually) play catch on the site.

Well, they found the right owners last week. Denise and Mike Stillman bought it for an undisclosed amount and plan on building more fields and an indoor practice facility on the 193-acre farm.

Thanks to the Stillmans, fans will be able to flock to the Field for years to come. It’s not the only place you can go to be a part of the movies, though - here are five other places movie buffs can go to be part of their favorite films.

1. Forks, Washington. Before the Twilight books and movies came along, Forks was a tiny little town of about 3,000 people. When Stephenie Meyer’s supernatural series became a huge phenomenon, Forks saw their tourism increase by about 600 percent. Although the movies weren’t actually filmed there, the people of Forks haven’t missed a beat. They’ve turned a charming old house into a bed and breakfast called the Cullen House; they’ve put a house similar to the Swan house on their Twilight tour; they’ve designated a parking spot for “Dr. Cullen” at the local hospital and of course they have a dazzling array of Twilight-themed gift stores and restaurants.

2. Madison County, Iowa. I redeem myself as an Iowan a little bit - I have been to the Bridges of Madison County. Winterset, Iowa, holds the Covered Bridge Fest so people can see the six famous bridges every October. Well, you can see the bridges any time of year, but the October festival seems to be perfectly timed for photo ops with the changing leaves. If you ever decide to make this pilgrimage, you might as well make a side stop for another movie-related spot in Winterset - John Wayne’s birthplace.

3. The Amityville Horror House in Amityville, New York. Technically, the owners of the allegedly haunted house don’t want you there, so I’m not actually suggesting that you make the trek to check it out. But plenty of people do. Hoping to make the house a little less recognizable, the owners even changed the distinctive curved windows that made the house look like it had eyes. They also changed the address. That was more than 20 years ago, but tourists seem to have been undaunted.

4. Wamego, Kansas. As in the Forks example, none of the Wizard of Oz was actually filmed in Wamego. But it’s probably the closest you’ll ever get to walking in Judy Garland’s footsteps unless you can afford to purchase one of the pairs of ruby slippers floating around out there (be prepared to spend a few hundred thou). During the first weekend of October, Wamego holds OZtoberfest, a festival featuring descendants of writer L. Frank Baum, various actors from the movies, hot air balloon rides and more. You can also visit the OZ museum, which houses thousands of pieces of memorabilia. If that’s not enough to settle your Yellow Brick Road wanderlust, the OZ Winery and Toto’s Tacoz (really) are open year-round.

5. Edinburgh, Scotland. There are all kinds of spots across the U.K. where Muggles can get their Potter fix, but Edinburgh is where J.K. Rowling wrote the first two books and at least finished the last one. There are also plenty of places around town that seem to have been the perfect inspiration for some of the most famous locations in the series, from Hogwarts to Diagon Alley. But if you want to be sure visiting a tried-and-true Potter locale, hop on over to London and visit King’s Cross Station, which is explicitly mentioned as the place where the gateway to the Hogwarts Express exists. A “Platform 9 3/4” sign has been installed in the station, along with a cart that appears to have halfway disappeared into the wall.

I know these are just a few of the places movie fans flock to for their own silver screen experiences - where have you been? Where would you like to go?

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