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12 Diseases and the Lucky Places They’re Named For

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Map image via Shutterstock

This isn't exactly what tourism bureaus want you to picture when you hear a town or region's name.

1. Guinea Worm

A parasitic nematode several feet long, European explorers named it for the Guinea coast of West Africa in the 17th Century. It's the stuff of nightmares. Eggs in stagnant water are eaten by water fleas, which get swallowed by a human drinking water. They mature in the human's gut, then mate. The female burrows to the lower leg and emerges. The burning sensation drives the victim to put his or her legs in the water. The worm lays her eggs and the cycle is repeated. Fortunately, it's easily prevented with a simple drinking filter, and it's on track to be exterminated within the next decade.

2. West Nile Virus

Another mosquito-borne form of encephalitis, this was discovered in the West Nile District of Uganda in 1937 and has probably been around since antiquity. It created quite a stir in 1999 when it showed up in the Americas. Humans, horses, and birds are all significantly affected by the virus, and it is mostly transmitted by Culex pipiens mosquitos. A vaccine exists for horses, but not yet for humans.

3. German Measles

Also called Rubella, this gets its popular name because it was German physicians who first described it in the 1700s. It is seldom lethal but was a major cause of miscarriage and birth defects such as blindness prior to widespread vaccination; during the rubella pandemic of the 1960s, there were about 11,000 miscarriages and 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome in newborns; New York state alone saw CRS in 1% of live births. A vaccine was introduced in 1969.

During World War I, some in the United States tried to combat the Germans by renaming German measles "liberty measles."

4. Ross River Fever

This flu-like disease first caused an outbreak in New South Wales, Australia, in 1928; the culprit was identified in 1959 in a mosquito collected on the Ross River. It is spread by several species of mosquito, and also affects animals such as kangaroos. It's rarely fatal, but there is some evidence it may cause meningitis occasionally.

5. Omsk Hemorrhagic Fever

This severe tick-borne disease was first found in the 1940s in Omsk, Russia. Its primary hosts are the water vole and the muskrat, but ticks can transmit it to humans and other mammals. It can also be transmitted through milk and through contaminated water. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, low blood pressure, anemia, low platelet counts, severe bleeding, and encephalitis.

6. Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever

Named for the Ebola River in Zaire in 1976, this family of hemorrhagic viruses are often shockingly lethal; some outbreaks have had over 90% fatality rates. Incubation lasts from under two weeks to nearly a month, after which flu-like symptoms develop and gradually worsen. Death is usually due to multiple organ failure due to low blood pressure, tissue necroses, and a very frightening condition called disseminated intravascular coagulation in which the blood's clotting mechanisms completely break down.

7. Marburg Virus Disease

A viral hemorrhagic fever very similar to Ebola, this was named for Marburg, Germany, in 1967. It has likely been in Africa for a long time, but 1967 is when workers in a vaccine manufacturing lab were preparing specimens of monkey tissues and were unwittingly exposed. Seven people died out of 31 infected in that outbreak alone.

8. Lassa Fever

Another hemorrhagic fever, first identified in Lassa, Nigeria, in 1969, this mostly hangs out in mice and is transmitted in their droppings. It will, however, infect any human tissue it encounters. 80% of cases are asymptomatic, but 20% are severe, and it kills about 5,000 people in Africa every year.

9. La Crosse Encephalitis

Discovered in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in 1963, this disease is transmitted by the "treebole mosquito," which lays its eggs in stagnant water. It can survive a cold winter by transmitting from the female mosquito into her eggs, which lie dormant until the spring thaw. It's not usually fatal, but can cause severe brain damage.

10. St. Louis Encephalitis

In 1933 in St. Louis, Missouri, an encephalitis epidemic exploded, with over a thousand cases reported. The virus causing it turned out to live naturally in migratory birds without sickening them. It can be transmitted to humans by Culex mosquitos, causing encephalitis that ranges from mild to life-threatening.

11. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

Named for the Rocky Mountains but widespread in North America, this tick-borne bacterial infection is very dangerous, killing up to 5% of infected patients even with advanced treatment. It's transmitted by the dog tick and the wood tick. Symptoms include sudden fever, headache, muscle pain, and rash.

12. Lyme Disease

And as Kathy discussed last week, the name "Lyme disease" has Connecticut roots. While this disease has been present for thousands of years, it wasn’t until a large outbreak of cases in the Connecticut towns of Lyme and Old Lyme during the 1970s that the full syndrome was recognized.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]