The Weird Week in Review

You Gotta Pay the Piper

If you had to guess what German city has a big rodent problem, you might guess Hamelin -and you'd be right. City officials admitted that rodents have chewed their way through a power cable at a popular fountain, forcing its closure. It sounds like a repeat of the legend of the 1284 infestation, in which the Pied Piper was hired to lead the rats out of town and into the Weser River. This time around, city officials say they'll just decommission the fountain, which was due to be permanently closed anyway. Oh, why were they planning to close the fountain? High maintenance costs. Seven hundred years later, the city is still stingy about paying for municipal services.

A Bag of Pot Won't Pay for Restaurant Meal

What do you do when you have the 2AM munchies? You head for Denny's. What do you do if you have no cash for the bill? Offer some pot! An unnamed man in Niagara Falls, New York, ate a meal billed at $9.91, and offered the cashier a dollar and a bag of marijuana to pay for it. When the cashier refused, the man tried to sell the bag to other restaurant patrons. The man fled before police arrived, but a restaurant employee knew him and gave the man's name and address to police.

Don't Steal from the Cops

Two men were hauled in to the police station for fighting and suspicion of possessing stolen goods in Panama City, Florida, on Tuesday. Dennis W. Baugham and Michael A. Marquez were in custody while police tried to determine who owned the new camping equipment they were found with. Marquez, under surveillance, took a clock off the police station wall and tried to hide it in his backpack! Police retrieved the clock and added a petit theft charge to Marquez' problems. Both men were charged with theft of a shopping cart, and more charges may be added.

Neon Light Left On for 77 Years

Clifton's Cafeteria in Los Angeles has been in business since 1935, although the site had a cafeteria even before that. During the Great Depression, Clifton's displayed forest scenes on the walls, illuminated from behind by neon lights. In 1949, a basement restroom was partitioned to convert it into a storage area, and one of the neon lights was covered over -but it wasn't turned off first. This past February, the light was discovered to be still burning, 62 years later! It is estimated that the lamp has been continuously lit for a total of 77 years, running up an electricity bill of $17,000.

Snake-handling Preacher Dies from Snake Bite

West Virginia is one of the few places where snake-handling church services are still legal. Mack Randall Wolford, pastor of the Full Gospel Apostolic House of the Lord Jesus in Matoaka, held a homecoming service last Sunday in the Panther State Forest, during which he was bitten by a rattlesnake that he owned. Wolford was taken to a residence about 40 minutes after he was bitten. Some time later, paramedics took him to Bluefield Regional Hospital, where he died on Monday. An investigation is underway to determine how long medical care was delayed after the bite. State park officials say they were not aware that a religious service had been held in the park, and that permission would have been denied if Wolford had contacted them beforehand.

"Cleaning Fairy" Breaks into Homes to Clean Them

Yes, it is a crime to break into someone's house to clean it up. In Westlake, Ohio, Sherry Bush returned to her home to find it tidied up, with a note from Susan Warren, the "Cleaning Fairy," who asked for $75! Bush called the number on the note.

"I think our jaws just dropped to the ground," Bush said. "I said, 'What happened, did you get the wrong house?' She said, 'No, I do this all the time.' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'I just stop and clean your house.'"

Bush told NewsNet5 that Warren later admitted she had broken in because she needed cash, though nothing was stolen from the house.

Warren has been charged with felony burglary.

Honor Student's Truancy Conviction Vacated, Expunged

Seventeen-year-old Houston, Texas, honor student Diane Tran was sentenced to 24 hours in jail and a $100 fine for missing too much school. Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Lanny Moriarty refused to make an exception for Tran, who was working two jobs to help support her siblings after their parents left. Tran's story went viral and pressure from the national media weighed on the judge. Yesterday, Moriarty vacated the conviction and ordered Tran's record expunged, so her truancy charge will not affect her efforts to get into college. Meanwhile, a website seeking donations to help Tran and her family raised $100,000.

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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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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]