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So We Made Some Changes to the Site

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Not sure if anyone noticed, but we've made some changes around here. Figured we'd at least get a letter or two.

I kid! Since we rolled out the new site on Friday, we've been flooded with emails and comments. Most were constructive and polite. Some were constructive and hostile. And a select few I wouldn't be allowed to reprint. If I haven't responded to your email yet it's because I can't type very fast.

You made some very good points. Let's go over the common threads:

Where's the Morning Links/Brain Game/Daily Morning Quiz?

In the next few days, you'll see a box in the right-hand column on the homepage called Daily Floss. Inside will be links to the latest Morning Cup of Links, Brain Game, and 5 Questions. They'll also appear in the list of headlines on the homepage.

What's this link to "The Knowledge Feed" in the navigation?

That'll lead to a page kinda like this, except The Knowledge Feed will give you the first few sentences of each story in reverse chronological order. More like the old "Blogs" page.

How do you decide what goes in "Buzzing"?

When stories from our archives become popular on Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, or Reddit, they'll be featured here. They could be recent stories that have fallen off the homepage or classics from our greatest hits album.

Let's say my power goes out for a week. I'll need to conserve my phone battery for emergencies, so I can't get my daily dose of mental_floss. When the lights come back on and I want to go back and read everything I missed, how will I do that?

There are no generators where you live? You don't have a second phone solely for _flossing? OK, you'll be able to keep hitting that "Load More" button for forever and keep seeing older posts. This will work in the homepage or in The Knowledge Feed.

Wait, what's going on with that "Load More" bar? It's not loading anything more on my phone.

If this isn't working for you, could you leave a comment with your browser/operating system/device? Also: An actual mobile version is launching soon, if you like mobile versions of things.

Change it back.

Give it a chance!

Why did you cut off your RSS feed?

Sorry about that. It was not intentional. We'll fix.

I just took a quiz and the average score was 760%. What equation are you math wizards using?

x = I have no idea what's happening. It's on the list.

Why isn't the 5 Question quiz on one page, like it always was?

That's something else we're trying to fix. It's not as easy a fix as I thought it would be (apologies to the people I told "it's an easy fix!"), but it's also on the list.

Who is this "we"? You and I were in Computer Science 1 together and you are not a programmer.

John and Marty are working around the clock to address everything we're talking about here, plus a host of behind-the-scenes issues. I wish there were three Johns and three Martys. Maybe some of them could get some sleep then.

Did you get angry emails the last time you redesigned the site?

Yes we did. And the time before that.

Why is there a picture of your daughters up there?

Because I'm not very photogenic. Charlotte and Katie have a new brother or sister on the way next month. When he or she arrives I'm going to disappear for a while. The site won't miss a beat, but we needed to work out the kinks before that happens. Thanks for your patience and your emails. I really think you'll grow to like this mentalfloss.com.

If your issue wasn't touched on here, leave a comment, send me a note (jason@mentalfloss.com), or tweet @EnglishJason.

Oh, and there's a quirk with the timestamp function, so I'll go ahead and publish the Brain Game and Morning Links right now. They'll be there when you wake up.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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