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Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus

Bringing Science Fiction to Mardi Gras

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Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus

Science fiction fandom and Mardi Gras go together like rice and beans, but they didn't show up together as much as they should until just the past few years. Historically, the Louisiana krewes that stage Mardi Gras events consisted of wealthy folks who felt bound by tradition. No one else could feasibly finance the fancy floats and balls. However, modern krewes are popping up to stage marching parades without floats, and they finance parties by attracting large numbers of dedicated, if not wealthy, fans.

Photo credit: Flickr user C. Paul Counts.

The most notable addition is the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus, formed in 2010 as Ryan Ballard and a couple of friends at a bar discussed the need for science fiction in the Mardi Gras celebrations. Ballard is an artist and puppeteer who had worked with the Krewe du Vieux on Mardi Gras projects, and a member of the Louisiana Bast Alpha Garrison of the 501st Legion of Storm Troopers. Melding Mardi Gras with the world of Star Wars fandom just made sense for him.

Photo credit: Flickr user C. Paul Counts.

Ballard went to work, and found many like-minded fans to join him. The Chewbaccus Parade debuted in 2011.

Photo credit: William Matthew Wyche

The security wing of the krewe is the Redshirt Rebellion, who wear red shirts and are willing to face death at any time. Here they are seen escorting the krewe's beer-dispensing robot, Bar2D2.

The krewe scored a major coup for the 2013 Chewbacchus Mardi Gras parade held on January 26, as Peter Mayhew and his wife Angela rode a Millennium Falcon float as parade royalty. Mayhew, dubbed the krewe's "Emperor for Life," played Chewbacca in the Star Wars film series.  

Photo credit: Ariel Zambelich/Wired

As the Krewe of Chewbacchus grows, the parades become more elaborate. Mayhew rode in a float called the Millennium Falcon, built by Ballard and other krewe members and funded by a Kickstarter campaign.

The Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbaccus is serious about being an inclusive group. Although dedicated to Star Wars at the core, all science fiction fans are welcome. The dues stay at a low $42, because 42 is the answer to everything. For fans of other science-fiction universes, sub-krewes were developed, and invited to participate in the Chewbaccus parade. As the sub-krewes grow, they stage their own spinoff events.  

One of the popular sub-krewes is the Krewe du Who for Doctor Who fans.

Another of the Chewbaccus sub-krewes is the Krewe of the Living Dead, who participate in Zombie Walks and other activities all year long. In addition to zombies, vampires, ghouls, and other monsters are welcome in this krewe. They also staged the Mardi Gras Day Massacre, a walking parade through New Orleans' French Quarter. The 2013 theme is "BEADS, BOOZE, and BRAINS."

The Chebikkan Cyclepods is a group of art bike builders who participate in the Chewbacchus parade. Here you see an X-wing bicycle and a TIE fighter bike.

Louisiana's Bast Alpha Garrison of the 501st Legion, the nationwide group of Stormtrooper cosplayers, participates in the Chewbacchus Parade and other Mardi Gras parades as well, most recently the Krewe of Tucks Parade, shown here.

Science fiction fans are gradually finding their way into the biggest traditional parades, too. Matt Staggs shot this picture of a float in the Krewe of Morpheus Parade.

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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]