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5 Doctor Who Stories Ripped From the Headlines

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From its start in 1963, Doctor Who has heavily featured the future and the past -- but stories based on current events have also been part of the series. While it isn't quite Law & Order, sometimes we do get to see Doctor Who: Ripped from the Headlines!

1. The Cuban Missile Crisis

In the News: The Cuban Missile Crisis was still very much on people's minds in 1963, when Doctor Who first launched. The crisis had reached a fever pitch when the Soviet Union announced that it would respond to the placing of intermediate range ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey by placing their own missiles within reach of the United States, on the Soviet-aligned island of Cuba. This would give both nations, for the first time, the ability to rain death upon one another at will. The two nations eventually agreed to pull their missiles back. Although the tools of nuclear war would improve over the next few decades, this was the closest the world ever came to a full nuclear exchange.

On Doctor Who: The second serial presented on Doctor Who, a six-part story called "The Daleks," was set on a distant world where the nightmare of 1962 actually came to pass; two nations, the Thals and the Dals, had been locked in an arms race for some indeterminate period of time, finally developing nuclear weapons, resulting in a full nuclear exchange between the two and irradiating the planet Skaro. The radiation was so severe that by the time our heroes arrive, the forests are petrified and full of mummified animals. Those who survived the exchange are now drastically mutated. The Thals have mutated full-circle, becoming a handsome race devoted to peaceful coexistence. They believe the Dals are either extinct or so horribly mutated that they cannot emerge from their frozen city. Neither is completely true; the Dals have mutated horribly, to the point where they have no skeletons and are no longer capable of independent life, but they have developed tank-like travel machines, equipped with life support and a formidable weapons system. They have become the Daleks.

As testimony to the uncomfortable reality of nuclear war, the Daleks quickly became the most popular and enduring villains on the program.

Here's the segue from the first serial, "An Unearthly Child" into "The Daleks." Our heroes hastily dematerialize as they flee angry cavemen on prehistoric Earth; they land for the first time on Skaro, a seemingly dead world. It looks safe to go out . . . but then the radiation meter registers the true danger:

2. The Development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

In the News: The missile threat only got worse. By the late 1960s, ICBMs were a reality, allowing missiles stored anywhere to strike anywhere else on the planet. By the 1970s, storable propellants brought a new element: missiles could be kept armed, fueled, programmed, and ready to fire at a moment's notice, in sufficient numbers to ensure that if anyone attacked you, you could make sure it was the last thing they ever did. This was an awesome power, and one with an obvious potential for abuse: you need only fear people who have no interest in the survival of their own nation. And as more nations (such as France and China) acquired both nuclear weapons and the technology needed to deliver them, this worry became ever more clear.

On Doctor Who: In 1974, Tom Baker became the Fourth Doctor, and his first story, "Robot," incorporated this fear. It began with the Asimovian concept of a robot that was programmed to help people being turned against them by altering its programming, but shifted to the massive potential abuse that could be made of ICBMs. The robot's handlers used it to steal the launch codes for nuclear missiles all over the world, and were preparing to launch them all, with the objective of wiping out the human race so that their chosen few could repopulate the world. Later the same season, the six-part story "Genesis of the Daleks" also explored the notion of a madman initiating a nuclear exchange. In this case, the nuclear exchange that ended the ancient war between the Thals and the Dals (inexplicably renamed "Kaleds" in this story) and completed the irradiation of Skaro. It was the brainchild of one man, Davros, a Kaled who betrayed his own people to provoke the final exchange and eliminate the politicians who were preventing his Dalek creations from becoming an independent reality.

3. Oil Rigs: Terror at Sea

In the News: The Cold War wasn't the only big news during the early years of Doctor Who. The first British North Sea oil well was drilled in 1965. That was also the year of the first accident. The first oil rig on the British continental shelf collapsed under rough seas and sank, killing 13 men. (The remaining 14 crew survived.) By 1970, the fields were ready to be commercially exploited, eliminating Britain's dependence on foreign oil by 1979. But the accident in 1965 wouldn't be the last. In 1968, the Odeco Ocean Prince broke up and sank; all crew were evacuated safely. The Constellation sank under tow in 1969. In 1974, the Transocean 3 collapsed and then capsized; all crew were evacuated safely. Still, drilling remained popular, and had a dramatic effect on the economic situation in Scotland. Its northerly location made it a prime source of labor of the rigs, creating an employment boom.

On Doctor Who: In 1975, "Terror of the Zygons" was transmitted, a four-part story concluding Tom Baker's first season as the Fourth Doctor. The Doctor has been called in to help investigate the peculiar destruction of oil rigs off the Scottish coast. Unlike the real-life loss of the Transocean 3, these rigs aren't destroyed by weather; whatever's been destroying them has teeth. The company is keen to solve the problem, as workers are reluctant to go to the rigs now, and the region is now dependent on the rigs for employment -- so much so that the local laird bemoans the loss of staff for his castle, as they've all taken jobs with the oil company. But of course there turns out to be more going on -- the rigs are being destroyed in the early stages of a nefarious plan by a race of shapeshifting aliens who plan to destabilize global politics and then seize power.

4. The Energy Crisis

In the News: The reason North Sea oil was so big, of course, was the energy crisis. German oil production peaked in 1966; Venezuela and the United States peaked in 1970. Great Britain was already massively dependent on foreign oil, the promises of North Sea oil not yet realized. Although the worst was yet to come, by 1970, headlines talked of a looming energy crisis and the need to find alternate sources.

On Doctor Who: In May and June of 1970, the seven-episode serial "Inferno" involved a project to tap pockets of a mysterious gas below the Earth's crust. Named "Stahlman's Gas" for the obsessive scientist in charge of the project, it promises to provide near-limitless sources of energy and prevent the looming energy crisis. The Third Doctor becomes involved because the drilling project competes for energy from a nuclear plant that the Doctor is also using to try to repair his TARDIS. But Stahlman's Gas is not the panacea anyone had hoped for, and the drilling project threatens to turn England into a gigantic volcano that will destroy the Earth.

5. The Discovery of Martian Pyramids

In the News: In 1971, the Mariner 9 spacecraft became the first man-made object to orbit another planet. Although previous flyby missions had revealed that Mars was pocked with craters and appeared lifeless, this would be the first chance to make a proper survey of the world. The first few months of the mission were disappointing; a global sandstorm was blanketing the planet. But then the sand settled out. Among many amazing discoveries, such as the first discovery of volcanoes on another world, there was a group of mesas with a striking appearance on these early low-res images: they looked like pyramids, and pyramids would mean intelligent life capable of massive public works projects.

Skeptics were cautious, and indeed, later missions have revealed them to be natural formations But when the "pyramid" photos came back on February 8, 1972, it made headlines all the same.

On Doctor Who: A few years later, Doctor Who mimicked that storyline in "Pyramids of Mars." Attempting to return to UNIT headquarters in 1980, the TARDIS is drawn off-course to a large manor house that stood on the site over sixty years earlier. The house belongs to a renowned Egyptologist and is full of items returned from a recent mission. But the Egyptologist has failed to return along with the artifacts that he'd shipped ahead, and soon the mummies start coming to life. He had stumbled upon the prison of a super-powerful alien named Sutekh, held captive by a beam being transmitted from the pyramids on Mars. On Doctor Who, the pyramids were indeed artificial, built expressly to house the transmitter and keep it out of Sutekh's grasp on Earth.

Honorable Mention: Ripped from a Future Headline!

Since Doctor Who involves time travel, is it possible they ripped something from a future headline? In "Terror of the Zygons," produced in 1975 and set ostensibly around 1980*, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart contacts an unnamed prime minister -- and refers to this person as "ma'am." That wasn't actually in the script; actor Nicholas Courtney ad-libbed it. But four years after this episode was transmitted and a year before it was (probably) set, Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

* Doctor Who continuity is a bit muddled at times; this particular case is so contentious that fans have given it a name: the UNIT dating problem. Episodes featuring UNIT (a paramilitary organization that employed the stranded Third Doctor) were recorded in the early 1970s but set in the not-too-distant future, with "Terror of the Zygons" likely occurring around 1980. Later writers did not always realize this, leading to an overt and irreconcilable continuity problem.

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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]