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Maverickkat

The Weird Week in Review

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Maverickkat

Man Rescued from McDonalds High Chair

An unnamed man in Cork, Ireland, stopped by a McDonalds outlet early Tuesday morning. For some reason, he sat in a high chair designed for infants and toddlers. When he couldn't get out, police were called. They managed to free the man from the high chair, and no charges were filed. However, witnesses, who say alcohol was involved, managed to snap a picture that went viral. A spokesman for McDonalds remarked that anyone using a high chair in their shops should always have adult supervision.  

Don't Dry Toilet Paper in the Microwave

Once an entire roll of toilet paper is wet, there's no saving it. It's gone. You may as well toss it in the garbage. An unnamed person in Tucson, Arizona, learned that lesson the hard way.

An attempt to salvage a soggy roll of toilet paper will end up costing someone several hundred dollars.

Fire crews were called Saturday afternoon to a Foothills senior living complex in the 1500 block of East River Road when a smoke alarm was triggered, Capt. Barrett Baker, spokesman for the Tucson Fire Department, said.

The apartment sustained several hundred dollars in smoke damage.

Get a Degree in Heavy Metal

A new course to be offered this fall at New College Nottingham in England will lead students to a two-year degree in Heavy Metal. The school says it was developed in response to student demand. The new course will teach students the history and business of heavy metal, as well as how to write and perform songs. Public performances are part of the course in the second year. Those who complete the course have the option of continuing their path to a four-year degree at  Nottingham Trent University, which will accept credits from the heavy metal course. Though some say the degree is a waste of time, others point out that employers tend to cull stacks of job applicants by rejecting anyone without a college degree of some sort.

Fan Standoff at Science Fiction Convention

A clash between Star Wars fans and Doctor Who fans sparked a visit from police at the Norwich Sci-Fi and Film Convention on Sunday. The convention was co-hosted by the Norwich Star Wars Club at the University of East Anglia. When members of a rival group, the Norwich Sci-Fi Club, showed up, they were refused entrance. Jim Poole, treasurer of the Sci-Fi Club, arrived at the club and approached an actor from the TV series Doctor Who to request an autograph, and was asked to leave, sparking the dispute between the two groups. Poole called police to report an assault. Police arrived and determined there was no assault, but gave both groups a talking-to in order to reduce tensions.   

How to Beat the Lines at Walt Disney World

Some families with money to burn have found a nefarious way to bypass long lines at Walt Disney World in Florida: hire a disabled person to be part of your family for the day.  

The “black-market Disney guides” run $130 an hour, or $1,040 for an eight-hour day.

“My daughter waited one minute to get on ‘It’s a Small World’ — the other kids had to wait 2 1/2 hours,” crowed one mom, who hired a disabled guide through Dream Tours Florida.

“You can’t go to Disney without a tour concierge,’’ she sniffed. “This is how the 1 percent does Disney.”

The woman said she hired a Dream Tours guide to escort her, her husband and their 1-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter through the park in a motorized scooter with a “handicapped” sign on it. The group was sent straight to an auxiliary entrance at the front of each attraction.

Those who skip lines by riding a wheelchair or motorized scooter can bring up to six group members with them on rides at Walt Disney World.

Singing Woman Forces Emergency Landing

An American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York made an emergency stop in Kansas City to deal with an unruly passenger. An unnamed woman on the flight sang "I Will Always Love You" and would not stop. A Federal Air Marshal on board could not get her to stop. She kept singing as she was escorted off the plane. Security officers in Kansas City took custody of the woman, and detained her until she calmed down, then released her. She left the airport in a taxi, and the plane continued its journey, arriving in New York only one hour late.

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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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]

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