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The Weird Week in Review

Arrested for Drunk Driving a Wheelchair

Raymound Kulma of Utica, Michigan, was pulled over by police while cruising in a motorized wheelchair. Police found his blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and the wheelchair was stolen. It belonged to James Konkel, with whom Kulma had argued just prior to the arrest. The wheelchair was returned to Konkel. Kulma has a history of drinking and driving.

Cow Proposal

Nathan Evans of Bracknell, England, wanted to ask Angela Olano for her hand in marriage in a way that would be meaningful to her. Olano really likes cows, so Evans contacted the organizers of the South England Show about borrowing a bovine. Catherine Elmes of Costow Farm clipped and bathed her show cow, Rosie, for the event. Then Rosie was fitted with a proposal banner and kept for Olano to find while on an outing with Evans.

The proposal came as a complete surprise to Ms Olano, 21, who thought she was being driven to a pub in the county to celebrate a relative's birthday.

She said: "I like cows, if I could have a cow I would, so I just thought he was going to take me for a walk somewhere to look at cows.

"So I was really amazed but it really means a lot to me. I know Nathan is the man I want to marry."

The wedding is planned for September. No, they will not serve beef at the reception.

Mystery Panties Incinerated

A pair of red and white lady's underpants fell out of someone's briefcase and onto the floor of the Chamber of Deputies during an urgent meeting of five members of the Brazilian Congress. Security guards discretely confiscated the panties. Two weeks later, no one had claimed them, but the story had leaked to Brazilian social media sites. The lost and found department made the decision to burn the underwear to forestall a media circus. One legislator said that there are suspicions over who the panties belong to, but no one in the congress is ready to name names.

Live Fish Lodged in Boy's Lung

Twelve-year-old Anil Barela of Madya Pradesh, India, was taking part in a stunt by a group of boys who were catching fish and swallowing them alive. But in Barela's case, the small fish didn't go down the right way. Instead, he inhaled it into his lung! He was taken to a hospital, choking. Dr. Pramod Jhawar extracted the fish in a 45-minute procedure, while Barela's oxygen level fell. He said the fish was struggling against him as he removed it.

Woman Accidentally Steals Getaway Car

A Houston woman identified only as Blanca was cashing a check at the Chase bank in Uvalde, Texas, when armed bank robbers stormed in. She was so frightened she ran to the first car she saw and drove away. She later found out that she had taken the robbers' getaway vehicle!

She said she drove a few miles from the bank, pulled into a parking lot, fell out of the car and ran into a Cricket store, screaming for help.

But what she didn’t know was, she’d just stolen the suspects’ getaway car – which police said the suspects had stolen from someone else.

"Then, they arrested me, and they said, ‘You’re the one that stole a stolen car.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it was their car,’" Blanca said.

The FBI cleared Blanca of car theft charges. The robbers carjacked another vehicle and are still at large.

Obese Body Causes Crematorium Fire

A crematorium fire in the city of Graz in southern Austria destroyed the building in April. The cause of the fire has now been released: it was a fat woman. A 440-pound corpse caused the crematorium's filter system to overheat, leading to the blaze. The local fire chief said special facilities should be created to cremate obese bodies.

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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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