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The Weird Week in Review

Congress Votes to Ban the Word ‘Lunatic’

Congress cannot agree on what to do to avoid the fiscal cliff, but the House of Representatives overwhelmingly agreed to ban the word "lunatic" from all federal legislation. The vote Wednesday was 398-1 in favor of the ban. One has to wonder why the word comes up in legislative bills at all. The bill follows others intended to stop the use of outdated terminology concerning the mentally ill. The one dissenting vote came from Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, who said, "we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington.”

Handyman Forced to Fix Home

A good handyman is hard to find -and even harder to keep. A couple in Morgan Hill, California, were arrested on kidnapping and other charges for holding a handyman against his will and forcing him to do repairs on their home. They lured him into their home on Monday morning.

Detectives said 36-year-old Jason DeJesus and 33-year-old Chanelle Troedson beat the handyman, threatened to kill him and forced him to fix several items in the house over a six-hour span. The repairs included a dishwasher and a broken door.

“The victim was pretty terrified. He was pretty shaken up and scared by this whole incident,” Cardoza said. “What he did tell investigators is that he was just trying to do what he was being told, wait for the opportunity to escape.”

The unnamed victim escaped when he was being transported to another house for additional work Monday night. He fled during a stop for gasoline on the way. Police arrested the couple shortly afterward.

Beached Whale Rotting Near Bob Dylan's Home

A 20-ton fin whale washed up on the beach at Malibu, California, near the homes of celebrities such as Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand on Monday. Officials still haven't decided what to do with it. Los Angeles County Lifeguards had planned to tow the 40-foot whale out to sea, but found on Thursday that the carcass is too deep in the beach, and is too degraded and would have fallen apart. Burial may be too difficult, as the beach is rocky. Meanwhile, the smell of the rotting carcass is "Blowin' in the Wind."

Man Shoots Girlfriend Over The Walking Dead

Jared Gurman of Long Island, New York, was arrested for shooting his unnamed girlfriend on Monday. The woman is in stable condition with multiple injuries. According to Nassau County police, an argument started at the girlfriend's home over the TV show The Walking Dead. The 26-year-old Gurman insisted the zombie scenario could happen in real life, and became so upset that she took him home. However, he continued to argue by text until she went by Gurman's home to check on him. He was waiting outside the door with a .22-caliber rifle. As she walked up the stairs, he shot her once in the back. Gurman was arrested on a charge of attempted murder.

Russia Going Nuts Over Mayan Calendar

Russian officials have gone to great lengths to quell fears of the world ending on December 21st, the day the ancient Mayan calendar runs out. Reports of stores being wiped out of supplies, a "mass psychosis" at a women's prison, and citizens who are building an arch of ice in Chelyabinsk sparked the official response.

As a consequence the Russian government's minister for emergency situations has sought to calm panic over the prophecy, saying he had access to "methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth," and that he could say with confidence that the world was not going to end in December.

At least one official has suggested prosecuting people for spreading rumors and panicking the public.

Whisky Restores Sight in Man Blinded by Vodka

Denis Duthie is a 65-year-old diabetic who had too much vodka at an anniversary party in July. Duthie went blind while drinking at the party, and when his sight hadn't returned the next day, he was taken to Taranaki Base Hospital in New Zealand. Doctors there suspected formaldehyde poisoning, which is treated with alcohol infusion. Since the hospital was out of medical alcohol, they fetched a bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch Whisky from a liquor store and introduced it into Duthie's stomach by feeding tube. He stayed in intensive care for a week, and his eyesight was restored within ten days. Now, Duthie says he can see clearly, and he hasn't had a drop of alcohol since the incident.

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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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