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The Puking Robot That Helps Scientists Study Infectious Noroviruses

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Wikimedia Commons

Norovirus might be the perfect human pathogen. It hacks our DNA to create new noroviruses, gives us diarrhea, makes us puke so that the virus can spread to new hosts—and it spreads like wildfire. More than 1.1 million people in Britain have been infected so far this winter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus causes 21 million illnesses annually in the United States. Approximately 70,000 require hospitalization and around 800 die each year.

Norovirus first appeared in Norwalk, Ohio, in November 1968, but how the virus gets into our cells still isn't well understood. "It’s not even clear exactly which type of cell they invade once they reach the gut," Carl Zimmer writes at National Geographic. “Regardless of the type, they clearly know how to exploit their hosts. Noroviruses come roaring out of the infected cells in vast numbers. And then they come roaring out of the body. Within a day of infection, noroviruses have rewired our digestive system so that stuff comes flying out from both ends.”

The viruses, says Zimmer, alter our intestinal lining and cause the cells to dump fluids, which contain many noroviruses (5 billion per gram of feces, in fact). And they make us repeatedly projectile vomit by tapping into our nervous systems and making our nerves send signals that will quickly contract the muscle lining of the stomach. Again, how these viruses do it is a mystery, but some studies have shown that during a norovirus infection, the digestion of food is slowed down. “In other words,” Zimmer says, “they seem to load up the stomach in preparation for vomiting.” Once outside the body, the viruses float through the air and end up on counters, food, and any other surface you can think of. On hard surfaces, they can survive 12 hours; on contaminated fabrics, 12 days. They also survive freezing, heating, and bleaching.

According to Zimmer, scientists don’t have a good way to study noroviruses, because they haven’t figured out how to rear them in human cells in a lab environment. But they can look at how the viruses spread—and that’s where Vomiting Larry comes in.

Larry is a humanoid robot that projectile vomits puke laced with a fluorescent marker. This allows scientists at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire, England, to study how far particles of vomit travel, become aerosolized, spread, and infect others. “That’s important,” says Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing (where the above video comes from), “because it explains one of the ways that viruses spread by vomiting manage to end up in everyday things like, say, frozen raspberries. Aerosolized vomit isn't something you can spot. It doesn't clean up easily. And even just a drop of it can pass on plenty of viruses.”

Right now, scientists have Larry rigged up to study noroviruses, which Ian Goodfellow, a professor of virology at the department of pathology at Britain's University of Cambridge, told Reuters is “one of the most infectious viruses of man. It takes fewer than 20 virus particles to infect someone. So each droplet of vomit or gram of feces from an infected person can contain enough virus to infect more than 100,000 people." Using Larry, they've determined that aerosolized vomit can travel about 10 feet away from the puker.

So what’s the easiest way to stay healthy? Use common sense: Avoid anyone with the symptoms of the virus, wash your hands with warm, soapy water (Goodfellow suggests counting to 15), and dry your hands thoroughly.

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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