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The Weird Week in Review

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Borscht-Eating Bear Menaces Couple

A couple living near Ust-Ilimsk in Siberia made a batch of borscht, or beet soup. The soup cooled in the kitchen while the couple went to bed in their separate bathhouse, where they have been staying during house remodeling. The smell apparently traveled, and the couple were awakened to find a bear was breaking the windows of their home -and then went inside to eat the borscht! The bear caused extensive damage to the home. Police arrived to find the bear in the garden. A warning shot scared it back into the woods, but the bear didn't seem to mind because all the borscht was gone by then anyway.

“Too Intoxicated” Murder Defense

Convicted drivers in three separate murder cases have lodged an unusual appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals. Each was driving under the influence of alcohol when they caused an automobile crash that resulted in a death. Their argument boils down to: they cannot be held responsible for the crash because they were "too intoxicated to understand their threat to public safety." The court is expected to make a ruling on the defense next month.

Fire Station Burns Down

It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it makes the global news. Around 70 volunteer firefighters in Saterland, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, responded to a fire call and arrived to find their own fire station burning down!

But by the time the volunteer fire fighters arrived at their station, which was just five years old, the blaze had already consumed the building, making it impossible for them to enter.

Despite their best attempts to control the flames from outside, the 70 volunteers were forced to watch on helpless as the entire building was destroyed.

No one was injured. The damage is estimated at about five million euros.

Don't Wear Obsession Cologne in the Jungle

Camera traps are a great way to observe wildlife species, but it's still a waiting game, and wildlife biologists have learned some tricks to get those animals to pose for the camera. In the case of jaguars, a dab of perfume helps. According to biologist Miguel Ordeñana, the big cats are particularly attracted to Calvin Klein Obsession for Men. It contains civetone, or its synthetic analogue, which is a natural scent-marker. Biologists think the jaguar may want to mark over it with its own scent. Obsession also contains vanilla, which may spark curiosity. Keep that in mind as you pack for your next wildlife safari.

Rabbis Arrested on Kidnapping Charges

Rabbi Mendel Epstein and Rabbi Martin Wolmark have been arrested in Brooklyn along with eight co-conspirators in a sting operation. They are accused of plotting to kidnap a man and torture him until he agreed to relinquish his wife in a religious divorce. They did not know that the woman who hired them was an FBI agent. In the Orthodox tradition, a divorce is not official until the husband agrees to release the wife from the marriage, which is sometimes strongly encouraged by religious officials.

According to police, Epstein and Wolmark appear to have taken these types of solutions to unprecedented extremes. Authorities say the two charged women $10,000 for a rabbinical decree permitting violence against their husbands, and $50,000 for a full service kidnapping, in which the rabbis and their cronies took care of the violence themselves.

The ten men arrested are being held without bail.

Cats in Wheelchairs Must Be Leashed

Yvonne Steel of Melbourne, Florida, has a cat named Pooh Bear whose hind legs are paralyzed. She puts him in a wheeled device and takes him to a park for exercise every day. Brevard County Animal Services issued her a ticket because Pooh Bear was not on a leash. Capt. Bob Brown of the service said she had been warned that the leash regulation applied to all animals, even disabled cats. The ticket totaled $230, although it also included a fine for her unleashed chihuahua and a rabies vaccination violation.

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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]