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Flickr / Gates Foundation

4 Innovative Libraries Transforming Lives Around the World

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Flickr / Gates Foundation

Only about a third of the world's population has access to the internet. Here in the United States, libraries have become a major source of Internet access for people who otherwise can't afford computers or net access -- and the same goes for libraries around the world. Giving people access to the Internet in a public setting doesn't mean handing them a free pass to infinite animated GIFs; it means jobs, health information, and education.

If you love libraries in the U.S., you'll be blown away at how they transform lives in all countries. Today, let's look at four innovative projects bringing the power of learning to communities around the world.

1. Arid Lands Information Network, Eastern Africa

Patrons of an ALIN library access the Internet. Photo courtesy of Gates Foundation.

The Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN) includes fifteen Knowledge Centers throughout Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. The Knowledge Centers, also called Maarifa Centers, help people with day-to-day problems like increasing crop yields, dealing with pests, and accessing health information. It's simple, really -- you get a building (sometimes a shipping container), stock it with books, computers, and an internet connection, and then staff it. The rest is community empowerment. Here's a video explaining how the centers work:

Here's another perspective on the Maarifa Center in Isinya, Kenya. Locals explain how they use the center, and the effect that free access to learning has on their lives. This is amazing, and by the way, the center has a blog. (Links to the other centers' blogs are on this page.)

2. Veria Central Public Library, Greece

A patron of the Veria library enjoys her time in a "magic box." Photo courtesy of Gates Foundation.

We all know Greece has had a tough time lately. One library in Greece stands out as a fantastic public service: it provides bookmobiles equipped with computers, plus computers and cultural activities at its central library. The library serves a small town -- Veria's population is just 55,000, 46% of whom are registered members of the library. Despite serving such a small community, the library is endowed with a beautiful design, complete with a children's area pictured above. And their bookmobiles look pretty sweet too!

In this TEDx talk, Dimitris Protopsaltou explains the story of the Veria Central Public Library. Indeed, the Veria library was the first in Greece to have a website -- and Protopsaltou built that website, which helped shape his career down the line. Note that English starts about 30 seconds into this one, and continues throughout.

3. Rural Education and Development (READ), Nepal

Patrons at a READ Nepal library use a computer. Photo courtesy of Gates Foundation.

READ Nepal works to develop remote villages through education. The program funds dozens of community libraries, providing books, internet access, and adult literacy classes. That last one is particularly important -- many Nepalese women have been deprived of an education, so they were illiterate until READ Nepal offered free classes.

In this documentary from UNESCO, we learn how literacy changes the lives of women in Nepal. It's truly touching, and demonstrates the power of education to help people in ways large and small.

For more stories like these, check out READ Nepal's Stories of Empowerment site, or their videos. (Don't miss the 20 Years of READ Nepal documentary.)

4. Community Technology Centers, Dominican Republic

Kids at a CTC play chess. Photo courtesy of Gates Foundation.

In the Dominican Republic, Community Technology Centers (CTCs) offer free access to computers, books, and education. But in addition to education, they're community centers -- they've even been host to local weddings!

The CTCs started in 1998 as five refurbished shipping containers scattered around the country. Since then the program has expanded to 93 CTCs -- most in permanent buildings, and always with a distinctive orange and green color scheme.

In a country where only about a third of the residents have access to the internet (and 40% of residents live in poverty), the CTCs are a lifeline. Here's a short documentary explaining how the CTCs work:

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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]