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A Day Trip to Chicago

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What do you do with only one day in Chicago? My family recently went there for a biannual reunion that I explained in a similar post a few years ago. Since then, the families have grown by one husband (mine) and five stepchildren (although only the youngest goes to the reunions). With only one full day that all six families would be in town, we decided to start with a trip to the Field Museum. Our party of 21 people hiked about a mile to the train station and rode an hour into the city.

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The Field Museum was founded as part of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 that showcased the city's rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire. The museum moved to its present location near the waterfront in 1921.

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The museum's signature exhibit is Sue, the 42-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex fossil cast that greets visitors in the museum's entrance. This dinosaur was found in South Dakota in 1990. After a protracted dispute over ownership of the fossils, the Field Museum bought the bones in 1997 for $8.36 million -a record price for fossils!

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Other exhibits now open at the museum include Genghis Khan, which was interesting as our party included one child from Mongolia in addition to nine from China. The younger kids enjoyed the Extreme Mammals exhibit, but the half-dozen 15-year-olds went straight for the Grainger Hall of Gems, a permanent installation.

Chinatown Chicago

The date of our tour was the 14th anniversary of the date we met our daughters in China. Not that we needed an excuse, but we decided to celebrate with lunch in Chinatown. With the aid of opinionated local relatives and some handy iPhone apps, we found the Moon Palace Restaurant, which had plenty of room, food, and hospitality for our large group in the middle of the afternoon. Afterward, we scattered around the neighborhood to pick up souvenirs.

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As we rode by hundreds of buildings, I was impressed by the way apartment residents convert stair landings, balconies, and roofs into outdoor living spaces with furniture and plants. Some were quite impressive, but hard to photograph from a moving train. I hope the train noise is something one would eventually get used to.

chicagotower

The next stop was the Willis Tower, although people around us assured us that Chicagoans as well as tourists still call it the Sears Tower (the name was changed in 2009). We couldn't pass up the opportunity to go to the top of the tallest building in the country!

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The Skydeck at the top gave us a view of the entire city. The glassed-in observation deck features glass-floored ledges that jut out of the building and give the illusion that you are standing over nothing but a 1,353-foot drop. Which you are, but its quite safe. The kids were excited about standing on the glass, but I passed.

Chicago

Yes, the view was spectacular, but I had been to the top of the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building. Although the Willis Tower is higher, it doesn't seem so because the observation deck is not exposed to the open air as the New York buildings are/were. The tourist elevators from the top do not stop at the ground floor, but go to a basement where you must traverse not one but two gift shops before you can take another elevator back to the ground floor.

chicagotrain

We had tentative plans to continue to the Navy Pier, but it was getting late, and we had been to the Navy Pier during a reunion ten years earlier. The herd of teenagers was ready for anything, but the parents knew we had an hour-long train ride ahead and a substantial hike to the hotel, so we headed back for a late dinner. A good time was had by all.

Chhicago2012

Photographs by Emily Cobb Photography and by yours truly.

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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
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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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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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