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The Famous Composer Who Was Obsessed With Trains

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Wikimedia // Public domain

The words "Antonin Dvořák” are often followed by phrases like “New World Symphony” or “folk music meets classical Romanticism.” But when the Czech composer wasn’t at his piano or conducting a symphony in Prague, he was often doing something quite different: obsessing over trains.

Born in Bohemia on September 8, 1841, Dvořák came of age alongside the railroads that changed life in Europe forever. As a child in Nelahozeves, a village between Prague and Dresden, the arrival of the railroad that connected the two cities also changed his life. Workers from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire made their way to the village during its construction, and the young boy watched soldiers and celebrities fly by on the trains, pulled by newly constructed steam locomotives, from a house across the street from the train station.

The train may have ended his town’s sleepy way of life, but it also inspired the young musician with a love for technology and progress. Eventually he followed the train to Prague and, as a young and increasingly famous composer, crisscrossed Europe on steam trains. His home base of Prague was a rail hub and the site of not one but two impressive train stations. Dvořák, who lived within walking distance of the Franz Josef I station, spent much of his spare time there, befriending railroad workers and reportedly escaping boring concerts to watch international express trains depart and arrive. He became obsessed with the arrivals and departures of the trains, memorizing their extensive schedules and becoming a bona fide trainspotter.

Dvořák’s obsession even showed up in his personal life: At one point, he asked a student who was dating his daughter to note the number on an international express train, then jokingly told his daughter he would forbid her to marry him because he botched the task. And when he visited the United States, he continued his trainspotting [PDF], though Grand Central Station apparently disappointed him due to its lack of opportunities to watch trains pass one another. His love of trains was so great that he once declared: “I would give all my symphonies for inventing the locomotive.”

You’d think that someone so into trains might have made more train-like music, but it’s hard to find locomotive influences in Dvořák’s folk-inspired songs. That’s not to say he didn’t find inspiration near the tracks: At one point, the composer was waiting for a festival train at the Prague station when he came up with the theme for the opening movement of his Seventh Symphony. And weirdly enough, his “Humoresque” was used as the background to a popular joke song in the 20th century that transposed potty humor about train toilets over the classic melody. It’s even said that trains eventually killed him—while standing at the Prague train station during a trainspotting trip, the composer caught a chill. He died soon thereafter.

Trains fascinated Dvořák so much that he rearranged trips to see them and begged acquaintances to describe their rail journeys to him. But why? He himself told a student that he loved the ingenuity with which each train was built. “It consists of many parts created by many different components,” he said. “Everything has a purpose and role and the result is amazing.” Kind of like a symphony.

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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]