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10 Nonviolent Ways to Thwart a Westboro Baptist Church Protest

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You're probably familiar with the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church, a fringe religious group of anti-gay, anti-Semitic, anti-kindness-in-general people infamous for picketing at the funerals of fallen soldiers, protesting charitable organizations, showing up with hateful signs after national tragedies, and for being generally terrible, terrible people. This weekend the WBC's spokesperson announced their plans to picket at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Here are 10 nonviolent counterprotest techniques — used previously or newly planned — that we may see in action if Westboro shows up in Newtown.

1. Strap on Angel Wings

Image credit: The Laramie Project at Duke

Angel Action is an organization that helps counter-protesters organize and construct 10-foot-tall "wings" for protesters to wear, which are used to block the view of WBC members and their signs. The group was informally founded during the murder trial of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and killed in 1998. WBC founder Fred Phelps staged a protest at the courthouse, and Angel Action founder Romaine Patterson, a friend of Shepard, devised the wings and set up around Westboro protesters. The organization is still involved in thwarting WBC pickets, including the planned Sandy Hook appearance, and has set up a Facebook event to provide details as they are available.

2. Build a Wall of Humanity

Image credit: Leslie Mott

At many funerals and events protested by Westboro Baptist Church, anti-WBC protesters will stand hand-in-hand to form a human wall around the venue to protect the victims' families or event attendees from seeing protesters, and also to prevent Westboro members from accessing the site. One such human wall was formed at Texas A&M after alum Lt. Col. Roy Tisdale was killed in the July 2012 Fort Bragg shooting, and again in August 2012 at the Palm Bay, Florida, funeral of Army Specialist Justin Horsley, who was killed in Afghanistan by an IED.

3. Bring Better Singers

Image credit: NBC

While they often sing at protests, it seems the Phelpses are not Foo Fighters fans. The church picketed a Kansas City concert in 2011 because instead of using their fame "to encourage obedience to God," Dave Grohl and Co. "teach every person who will listen all things contrary to him." (The list includes adultery and idolatry, which without the Foo Fighters would surely not exist.)

Undeterred, the band put on a bonus performance across the street from the Westboro folks. Dressed in overalls and fake facial hair of varying fabulousness, the band sang "Keep it Clean (Hot Buns)," which just happens to be a song about the lonesome life of a gay long-haul trucker. The band even made a great video, which begins a minute in to remove most of the NSFW language:

4. Don't Fix a Flat

Image credit: CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World

In 2010, Army Sgt. Jason James McCluskey died in combat in Afghanistan. When WBC showed up to picket his funeral in McAlester, Oklahoma, they were met with a mostly unremarkable counterprotest; people held their own signs and yelled across the street. But when Westboro's protesters tried to leave, they found that the tires of their minivan had been slashed. As they drove through town on shredded rubber and rims (followed by a police cruiser), it became clear that no person or business in McAlester was going to help them repair or replace their tires. Eventually, the WBC had to pull over in a parking lot and call AAA to have the van towed to a location willing to assist them. While we don't suggest vandalism, maybe consider not lending a hand should you find a Phelps with a flat.

OK, that one was kinda violent. Moving on...

5. Turn the Protest into an LGBT Fundraiser

At almost every WBC protest venue, you'll find an equally-vocal group heavily armed with signs and message t-shirts and megaphones. What you don't often find is a real method for turning Westboro's presence into something positive. That all changed in 2010 when UIC student Jason Connell had an idea.

When Margie Phelps and other members of WBC showed up in protest of the university's Jewish United Fund, Connell set out an empty pretzel jar and took donations. Funds raised by Connell were donated to charitable organizations the WBC targets specifically (mostly Jewish-, LGBT- and AIDS-related charities). But the real kicker was the thank-you notes mailed to Fred Phelps and his family. Without their protest that day, the couple hundred dollars raised by Jason Connell and the dozens of copycat campaigns that followed wouldn't have been possible.

6. Invite Zombies

Eight Westboro members found themselves surrounded by several dozen zombies when the group showed up to protest at a Seattle-area military base in July 2011. The zombies were such an interesting (and numerous) diversion that no one paid much attention to the Westboro people. The protest's organizer said, “It was the easiest way to divert attention from something so hateful.”

7. Invite Other Terrible People to Steal Some Thunder

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A large portion of Westboro's energy goes toward explaining how American soldiers die in combat as a result of the country's increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage. That's why, in 2011, they picketed at Arlington National Cemetery during the president's address on Memorial Day at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The turnout against WBC was enormous, and included a separate-but-equal response from a group of KKK members. The Klan, who were cordoned off from the general protesting population, passed out flags and made it known that they were there in protest of WBC's anti-military message. And it looks like even the KKK is disgusted with Westboro's latest move, because rumor has it they're planning to make an appearance in Connecticut if Westboro goes through with their picket. (You know you're beyond reprehensible when other terrible, terrible hate groups align with the public against you.)

8. Diversify the Protest Agenda

Image credit: Flickr user froboy

When six members of Westboro showed up at the University of Chicago to protest the school's employment of Barack Obama, more than 100 students organized various counterprotests, which ran through the duration of WBC's "visit." Student events included a simultaneous picket featuring signs warning of America's doom-by-figs, flyers deploring fig-eaters and speakers who told of God's vengeance upon fig-loving nations (all sourced from a reference to evil figs in the book of Jeremiah). Down the street, a ragtag dance troupe of frat boys did a little song and dance to "It's Raining Men." And in a nearby courtyard, passersby were distracted by a diversity fair featuring s'mores, more scantily clad dancing men, hot cocoa and petition-signing. Basically the idea was to outnumber and out-distract people who weren't protesting, which seems to be the most common action (aside from just making funny signs) to detract from Westboro's presence... which brings us to the next point:

9. Petitions!

Anonymous opened a petition to ”legally recognize Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group.” (They also released a list of WBC members' personal information, which is not at all a thing we advise being involved in.) Anonymous's motion is not the first and unlikely to be the last such petition, and it may even go unrecognized by the government (though it already had more than 84,000 signatures as I typed this). But it's worth noting that a hate group's actions — which include intimidation and harassment directed at a person, institution, or any other entity that "manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity" — may be investigated as domestic terrorism by the FBI.

10. Good Old Mockery

Image credit: Comics Alliance

There is no shortage of examples of signs mocking the WBC. Large, funny, meaningful and/or well-placed signs can be effective in reducing Westboro's negative impact in a community, and though there are no records for this sort of thing, we doubt there has been a WBC protest that hasn't been mocked relentlessly by civic-minded citizens.

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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]