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Animal Clinic of Regina

The Weird Week in Review

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Animal Clinic of Regina

Six Squirrels Separated

Six young squirrels whose tails had become fused together were brought in to the Animal Clinic of Regina in Saskatchewan. Veterinarian Dr. Steven Kruzeniski said the condition, known as squirrel king, was rare, but he'd seen a case before.

This particular group of six were nesting near a pine tree and sap fused their tails together. A city of Regina worker found the young squirrels and brought them to the clinic.

The animals were sedated and the veterinarian team worked to untangle the mess of tails. Their tails were then shaved of the matted fur and they were given antibiotics to prevent infection.

Dr. Kruzeniski says the young squirrels were lucky to keep their tails as in some more extreme cases they have to be amputated.

After they were deemed healthy, the squirrels were released back into the city park.

Tree Top Toilets

A subdivision just outside of Austin, Arkansas is in a tizzy about one neighbor who installed two toilets on poles high above the fence and signs that say "Trailer Park Coming Soon." Some residents complain that it has affected their property values. The local sheriff says there is some kind of dispute between the property owner and a developer who is building new homes adjacent to the property, but he did not know the particulars. However, the neighborhood is just outside of the city limits, and there are no laws against toilets in the trees. Neither the owner of the toilets nor the property developer would make a statement for the press.

Sheep-eating Plant Ready to Bloom

The Royal Horticultural Society in Surrey, England, announced that its specimen of the plant Puya chilensis is ready to bloom, after being cultivated for 15 years. The flower is expected to last about a week once it blossoms in a few days. The Chilean plant is not as innocuous as it appears at first glance. In its natural habitat in the Andes mountains, sheep and other animals will become trapped in the plant's sharp spines and starve to death, and when they decay, they fertilize the base of the plant. The RHS uses liquid fertilizer, as "feeding it on its natural diet might prove a bit problematic," according to horticulturalist Cara Smith. If you are in Surrey, please keep your sheep away from the greenhouse for the next couple of weeks.

The Cat Burglar of Ipswich

Theo, a part-Siamese cat in Ipswich, England, is a kleptomaniac, although he would probably describe himself as a "collector." Paul Edwards and girlfriend Rachael Drouet began noticing things around the house that they did not own. First it was cat toys, but the cat's activities quickly escalated.

"We've had things like muslin cloths, fluffy pens, a USB phone charger cable, a child's piece of art which they'd obviously spent most of the morning making - a glorious thing with lots of different colour feathers and leaves stuck to it, lots of things.

"We've got some other neighbours who have young children and quite like the cat so [they] had encouraged him into the house.

"He started stealing things from them and it kind of went downhill from there."

Edwards says his neighbors are mostly understanding, and he has set up a Facebook page to post the stolen items and reunite them with their owners.

Drunken Dentist Pulls Tooth

An unnamed dentist in Radomsko, Poland, was supposed to give the patient a crown, but ended up pulling his front tooth instead. The 28-year-old patient began to suspect the dentist was drunk when he was jabbed five times to be anesthetized. Then he saw his front tooth in the garbage bin. The patient demanded his dental records, and the dentist then threw him out. Police responded to the incident, and took a blood test that showed the dentist was indeed intoxicated. Charges are being prepared against the dentist.

Police Foil Bizarre KKK Radiation Weapon Plot

The FBI has arrested Glendon Scott Crawford and Eric J. Feight of New York State for trying to market a radiation-emitting weapon. Crawford, a member of the KKK, strangely attempted to sell the weapon to Jewish groups and synagogues as "a type of technology that could be used by Israel to defeat its enemies." An individual from one synagogue contacted police, which started an investigation from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Authorities say that the weapon was not fully constructed and Crawford had no radiation source, but he had components such as a remote triggering device. Crawford had recruited Feight to help him manufacture and test the weapon.

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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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