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Just How Gross Are Library Books, Exactly?

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Nobody wants to think about what might be crawling or oozing around between the pages of their paperbacks. Nobody but you, apparently—thanks for clicking!

The truth is that library book grossness is a pretty subjective concept, albeit one that scientists have been trying to measure for a long, long time. A 1911 article in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association titled “The Disinfection of Books” noted,

Books seem well adapted for carrying small-pox, measles, scarlet fever, trachoma, diphtheria, erysipelas, dysentery, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Yet so far as I have been able to find, no satisfactory method for the disinfection of books is being used anywhere in this country. Books are a particular diversion of invalids and convalescents, therefore they are in much danger of becoming infected. 

Besides the danger of contamination in these ways and in the ordinary handling of a book, many people persist in the uncleanly habit of moistening their fingers in their mouths when turning the leaves.

The article’s author, one L.B. Nice, reported that his colleagues in book-grossness research had attempted to quantify the disease risks buried in library books. One dedicated scientist took “much used books” from a public library and “cut out the dirtiest parts.” (For science.) He soaked the pages in saline, centrifuged the liquid, and injected the dirty book water into guinea pigs. 

The guinea pigs didn’t do so well. Over the course of several nasty experiments, dozens of treated guinea pigs died of tuberculosis, sepsis, and streptococcus (strep) infections.

But here’s the thing: Unless you’re stuck in some sort of weird literary torture chamber, nobody is ever going to inject you with library book juice. And modern scientists say that just curling up with a book is not enough to make you sick.

“I have never heard of anyone catching anything from a library book,” infectious disease specialist Michael Z. David told the Wall Street Journal. David says that viruses and bacteria can indeed live on the pages of library books, but that the risk of actual infection is very, very low.

Make no mistake, though: Those books are ripe with some pretty unpleasant substances. A 2013 test of popular books at Belgium's Antwerp Public Library turned up traces of cocaine and herpes. (To be fair, Antwerp is, apparently, a pretty big drug trafficking hub, but that still doesn’t explain the virus.) But once again, these substances were detected in minuscule amounts, definitely not enough to get you high or give you herpes.

And then there are the bedbugs. In 2012, library patrons across the country began reporting bedbug sightings in books and reading-room furniture. But don’t tear up your library card just yet. The scourge seems to be under control, for one thing. And even if your book does have a few beasties in it, there are ways to prevent them from coming inside. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, pesticide specialist Alicia Leytem recommended transporting your library books in a cloth bag, and then running the bag through a hot dryer for a half-hour when you get home. “That will kill any bugs or eggs,” she said.

Leytem does this for a living, so you can feel pretty confident when she says it’s safe to keep checking out your favorites. “My favorite place to read is in bed,” she told the WSJ.

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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]