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The Time 18th-Century French Aristocrats Fled to Rural Pennsylvania

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In 1793, the French Revolution was in full swing. Royal sympathizers—nobles, military officers, clergy, and other aristocrats—were guaranteed a sharp kiss from the guillotine. Frightened, thousands of aristocrats fled to neighboring countries like Austria and Prussia. A small handful of nobles, however, escaped to a place so obscure that they were able to start their own refugee colony, the only one of its kind. Their location? A meadowed hamlet in the Pennsylvanian backwoods.

There, a 4000-mile buffer separated the expatriates from the bloody streets of Paris. The nearest American city, Philadelphia, was 150 miles southeast. Miles of rolling hills and wavy pastures locked each person away from civilization. It was a sanctuary all right, but how did the King’s close circle wind up in the middle of nowhere?

You've Got a Friend in Pennsylvania

It all started when Robespierre condemned Colonel Vicomte de Louis de Noailles to death. Noailles was a prominent military man with an impressive network: the Marquis de Lafayette was his brother-in-law, his mother was Marie Antoinette’s Chief Maid of Honor, and George Washington was one of his war-buddies. Sadly, Noailles' royal ties destined him for the chopping block. By 1793, his entire family had been executed, forcing him to flee to Philadelphia.

In Philly, Noailles met Omer de Talon. Talon had been an advisor to King Louis XVI and served as Chief Justice of France’s Criminal Court, a job that made him pretty unpopular with Jacobin rebels. After a few prison terms, Talon escaped France by hiding in a wooden cask stowed at the bottom of an American ship.
When the two met in Philadelphia, they immediately began bouncing around the idea of starting a haven for other exiles. They met with a trio of shrewd American businessmen, who accepted the well-to-do refugees with open arms (partly because they knew they could make an easy penny). When the trio heard their idea, they bit at the chance to make it happen. The three men floated up the Susquehanna and found an isolated, but fertile, patch of land. Noailles and Talon loved it, and they naively bought it at an absurdly over-inflated price. After sketching the plans for France’s newest court, they started building.

Well, sort of.

French aristocrats were a dainty bunch. Few knew how to use a shovel or a plow, making them awful candidates for manual labor. So, rather than soil their hands, they hired locals. The local were no dummies. They took advantage of the language barrier, and overcharged the noblemen for each house they built. After three months of construction, 30 log cabins stood on the pasture, and Royalists began filling the homes. The colony was named “Azilum,” meaning “place of refuge.”

Although Azilum was nothing like the estates in France, the pampered aristocrats didn’t exactly rough it. Parisian fashion had plowed its way to the prairie—cabins were lined with fleur-de-lis wallpaper and rococo furniture. Women wore silk gowns and sparkly jewels, a stark contrast to the gritty, dirt-covered farmers who lived nearby.

Marie Antoinette: Pennsylvania Farm Girl?

Architecturally, the crème-de-la-crème of the colony was an opulent 3,600 square foot mansion dubbed “Le Grande Maison.” Some historians believe the massive house was Pennsylvania’s Versailles—it’s speculated that the house was built for Queen Marie Antoinette and her children. Indeed, there were plans to get the Queen out of France, but no one knows if her getaway plans included Azilum, or if Le Grande Maison was built just for her. Regardless, she lost her head before any plans were realized.

For 10 years, some 200 French exiles lived at Azilum. Many were confidants of the King: courtiers, army officers, special clergy, and other nobility. At one point, Louis Phillipe—who later became King of France—visited the settlement. But at the turn of the century, things started going downhill. The original backers went bankrupt, and the refugees stopped receiving money from Royalists overseas. Azilum’s economy floundered, and its citizens began filtering out. Some headed to bigger cities like Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans. Others went back to France after Napoleon granted repatriation rights to émigrés. Azilum quickly deteriorated into a royal ghost town, a scenic but obscure pasture.

Interested in the full story? You can visit Azilum, where vestiges of the old settlement, as well as later settlements, still remain.

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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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