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10 Buildings Made With Bones

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Wikimedia Commons

It might sound grotesque, but bones have been an architectural staple for millennia. Here are some of the world’s greatest osteological marvels.

1. The Skull Tower of Niš 

Using the skulls of your enemies to build a tower sends one powerful message—even if the structure winds up measuring a scant 15 feet in height. In 1809, midway through the first Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire, Turkish general Hurshid Pasha gathered 952 rebel skulls for this grisly project near the city of Niš. All but 58 were later removed and given dignified funerals, but thanks to the Serbian government’s preservation efforts, you can still see the building today.   

2. The Czermna Skull Chapel

Smithsonian

This unique temple is adorned with some 3000 skulls and countless shin bones. Vaclav Tomaszek, a priest residing in the small Polish villiage, collected and assembled the necessary skeletal remains from 1776 to 1804. Where did he find so many bodies? A combination of recent disease victims and mass graves hastily left behind by the Thirty Years’ War gave him more than enough. 

3. The Seldec Ossuary

Also known as “the Kutna Hora bone church,” this Czech building looks like an unassuming monastery on the outside. But venture indoors and you’ll see a bony chandelier, a bony candelabrum, and strings of assorted bones dangling from the ceiling.

4. The Capela Dos Ossos

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Evora, Portugal is home to yet another worship center built with human remains. Local history maintains that, during the 16th century, a few nearby cemeteries were destroyed, unearthing some 5000 corpses. The cathedral’s resident monks began putting them on display and utilizing them in the structure’s very framework, where they came to serve as a glaring reminder of death’s inevitability. Above the chapel’s doors is this haunting message: “We bones that are here, for your bones we wait.”

5. The Eggenburg Charnel

Atlas Obscura

The remains of 5800 Austrians were utilized in this marvel of ghoulish beauty, which was largely constructed in 1405. 

6. Dinosaur Bone Cabin

Courtesy of Yelp user Jessica H

It isn't just the bones of Homo sapiens that have been converted into building materials. Wyomingite and gas station owner Thomas Boylan finished assembling this piece of prehistoric real estate in 1933 (luckily, dinosaur fossils are quite abundant in the cowboy state). 

7. Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins

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Beneath this Roman church lie the meticulously-arranged bones of some 4000 friars laid out to form a myriad of gorgeous designs (including stars and flowers). A few have even been posed like ghostly mannequins under drooping robes.  

8. Cattle Bone House

Dan Phillips of Texas has been building houses with recycled materials for over 15 years, and cites cattle bones as one of his favorite materials. One particular home he oversaw in the eastern part of the state used bovine skeletons to forge countertops, door handles, floor tiles, and patio furniture. 

9. Mammoth Bone Huts

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Some of the oldest man-made dwellings in recorded history were primitive huts made with these ice age giants’ remains. The best-known examples hail from an archaeological site near the Ukrainian village of Mezhyrich

10. Church of San Francisco

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The cellar of this Peruvian church features femurs, skulls, and other bones gingerly laid out in ornate circular patterns, which attract tourists to this day.

BONUS:  Paris Catacombs

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Twelve million people currently inhabit France’s largest city. The bones of an additional 6 million have been laid to rest in the labyrinthine caves and tunnels which lie under it. Originally intended to tackle the area’s overflowing cemeteries, many of the skulls and other bones were later re-arranged to produce some truly eye-catching walls in this fascinating subterranean world.

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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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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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