The Weird Week in Review

Ticket Paid with 137 Origami Pigs

An unnamed driver was issued a ticket for running a red light after being caught by a camera in Jersey Village, Texas. He paid his fine, all right, but in one dollar bills, each folded into an origami pig, then arranged in two doughnut boxes. He then uploaded a video of the exchange to YouTube and more pictures of the pigs at imgur. Officials were amused at the stunt, but then asked him to unfold the dollars.

Plastic Flamingos Held for Ransom

Arthur O'Neil of Mansfield, Massachusetts has been decorating his lawn with plastic pinks flamingos for years, even dressing them up for holidays, which entertained the neighbors. But for the past few months, the flamingos have been disappearing one by one. Then one of the flamingos reappeared with a ransom note written on it:

"We have the flamingos....
If you ever want to see Arturo and his friends again, call [this number]."

The fact that the perpetrator knows the name of a plastic flamingo would make one believe the thief is someone O'Neil knows. O'Neil turned the evidence over to police. No arrests have yet been made.

Bartender Recognized Stolen Credit Card as His Own

David Weber of Miami Beach, Florida is accused of breaking into a car Monday night and stealing a credit card. He then went into a bar and ordered a beer. Weber attempted to pay his tab with the credit card, but the bartender noticed his own name on the card. He had bar security call police, who arrested Weber on credit card fraud and theft charges. Weber claimed he found the card on the ground.

Police Called Over Singing Schoolchildren

Students from Coconut Palm Elementary in Miramar, Florida, went to their local Walmart store to sing "God Bless America" flashmob-style on Tuesday to commemorate the events of 9/11. The school had received permission from a Walmart manager for the performance. However, that manager was not at the store when the students arrived, and the choir was turned away. The group then decided to sing outside next to the flagpole. Store management called the local police to come and disperse the crowd of children and parents, who were in the process of leaving by the time officers arrived. Walmart has since apologized, but did not explain the miscommunication.

8-Year-Old Runs Away from Home in Family Car

An unnamed 8-year-old boy on a farm in Australia was upset that his mother wouldn't let him have a pet duck. The angry child jumped in the family's vehicle, which has a manual transmission, and took off. His mother called police, and then drove another vehicle to chase her son at speeds of up to 100 kph. The boy's vehicle only stopped when he blew two tires. By the time police arrived, the mother and son were together. The boy was warned, but won't be charged because of his age. No word yet on the duck.

Fermented Fish Mistaken for Gas Leak

Apartment residents in Stockholm, Sweden were alarmed by an unfamiliar and unpleasant smell and called emergency services to report a gas leak. Two fire trucks, two police vehicles, and an emergency gas leak team rushed to the building, where several neighbors were concerned about the smell. An investigation revealed the smell was coming from a can of Surströmming, which is fermented fish. Surströmming is a Swedish delicacy that smells particularly nasty, and was being served at a party in the building. Police said that particular mistake has been made before.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]