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Wikimedia Commons

The Sticky History of Bubblegum Alley

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Wikimedia Commons

If you step on a piece, it ruins your day. If you find a chunk under your desk, it’s time to squeal. But in San Luis Obispo, California, it’s perfectly OK to chew a big hunk of chicle and stick it on the walls of Bubblegum Alley. There are even several gumball machines right outside the alley’s entrance to gather up a plethora of gumballs before entering.

Bubblegum Alley, thought by the city’s historical society to have been created by high school students in the ‘50s, is a chewy, multicolored mess of thousands upon thousands of pieces of gum, measuring 70 feet long and 15 feet high. The alley, which from the inside looks like an amorphous blob, is located right off of the city’s main street and situated in the middle of downtown.

“Bubblegum Alley is a must-see in SLO because it’s not every day you can see an entire walkway lined with gum,” says Becca Norman, a San Luis Obispo resident who runs a blog dedicated to the city. “There’s a fair amount of bubblegum art, like the large mural of a guy blowing a bubble.”

People usually just stick their chewed gum directly on the wall, but like Norman tells mental_floss, some leave their mark a little more uniquely. Aside from the typical “Hi,” the wall has been the home to numerous murals, “Just Married” announcements, and brief goodbye messages from students at Cal Poly, a polytechnic university in the city.

Norman says the whole gum thing is mostly a tourist attraction.

“Tourists always find the alley a lot more interesting than the locals,” she says. “Kids and teenagers think it’s cool, and parents think it’s unsanitary. A lot of people just ignore it unless they are with out-of-town guests. Still, everyone considers Bubblegum Alley an attraction because it’s one of the few things that people hear most about the city.”

The alley has even appeared on ABC’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not and E!’s The Girls Next Door, and was mentioned on Showtime’s United States of Tara. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times are just a few of the major media outlets that have showcased the brick space.

In a video posted by the Wall Street Journal, Bobby Berryman, the owner of local eatery Enzo’s East Coast Eatery—located on the other side of one of the gum-covered walls—says that the gum has formed a hefty layer on the alley’s walls. And it hasn't been cleaned since the 70s, according to Norman. Deborah Holley, an administrator of the Downtown Association, told the Los Angeles Times that when the fire department hosed the alley down one year, the result wasn’t pretty: Instead of falling off the walls and hitting the ground, thousands of pieces of chewed gum were blasted high into the air and rained down on people nearby. They ran waving their arms from a gum-storm that day, Holley said.

Over the years, San Luis Obispo residents have wavered on their opinions toward the icky tradition, coming together every now and then to campaign for its removal. Still, the city’s Chamber of Commerce lists the alley as a “special attraction” and Enzo’s even has a display of the alley’s history. Norman thinks it’s here to stay.

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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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