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The Weird Week in Review

Scottish Village Gets a "Sister City" -on Mars

Many cities and towns around the world have a link to another city or town far away, for friendship and cultural exchanges. The village of Glenelg, on the western coast of Scotland, has announced it will "twin" with another place with the same name. Glenelg, Mars, is the designated name of the spot that the Mars Curiosity rover is headed toward. Officials in Glenelg, the Scottish one, announced that an official "twinning" ceremony will take place on October 20th. Although there will be no Martian natives at the ceremony, American astronaut Bonnie Dunbar will attend.

The World's First One Ton Pumpkin

The Topsfield Fair, near Boston, Massachusetts, has an annual giant pumpkin weigh-off and has for years offered a $10,000 bonus for the first one-ton pumpkin. Ron Wallace of Greene, Rhode Island, has delivered that pumpkin. His entry weighed 2,009 pounds!

“It’s a great world record,” said the general manager of America’s oldest agricultural fair, James O’Brien. “Topsfield has had a lot of world records, but this one is special. This is absolutely one of the top sites in the country where you can come and weigh-off a pumpkin.” There have been seven world record giant pumpkins weighed at Topsfield in the last 15 years, O’Brien said.

The previous world record pumpkin was 1,843.5 pounds, set just a day before Wallace's weigh-in. Wallace won $5,500 for this year's competition and the $10,000 bonus, too.

Radioactive Money in Moscow

Muscovite Yelena Kryzhanovskaya withdrew ten 5,000 rubles notes from her bank account. She hid the money under her pillow. A couple of days later, the 61-year-old turned on her radiation meter, apparently a common household item in Russia, which she keeps to check produce. The meter sounded an alarm, and Kryzhanovskaya traced the radiation to the money under her pillow! Emergency workers determined that the levels coming from the cash was 20,000 times the amount of normal background radiation, comparable to the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe. The money was put in a lead container and taken to a nuclear storage facility. Kryzhanovskaya is now worried about whether her money will be replaced. The bank says it has no idea how the money became contaminated.

City Crews Spotted "Mowing" Artificial Turf

City contract workers in Townsville, Australia, became the butt of jokes after motorists took pictures of them apparently mowing artificial grass that had been installed on street medians. The pictures were posted on social media sites. They weren't really mowing the Astro Turf; it just looked that way. The city had asked the contracting company to clean cigarette butts off the turf strips, and they brought out large vacuum cleaners that resembled lawn mowers. The city has now asked that the company think of another cleaning method, to keep from looking ridiculous.

The Case of the Panties Dropped

Hocking County Prosecutor Laina Fetherolf, who is running for a second term, complained to the Ohio Elections Commission about her opponent, Republican lawyer Jason Sarver, who she said spread a rumor that she put her underwear on a judge's bench. Apparently, a court hearing was delayed while Fetherolf left and corrected a "wardrobe malfunction." But she denies the part of the story in which she returned to the court and entered her panties as evidence.

Judge Wallace was restrained about details, but he agreed with the prosecutor: “No panties have ever been placed on my bench by anyone, including her.”

The election commission dismissed the complaint.

Missing Maple Syrup Found

Ten thousand barrels of maple syrup were stolen from Canada's strategic syrup reserve in Quebec in August. That's about $20 million in maple syrup. Police believe the thieves pumped the syrup out into tanker trucks, but do not know how they avoided security. Tuesday, the RCMP raided a warehouse owned by S.K. Export in Kedgwick, New Brunswick, and seized some of the stolen syrup. However, it was only a fraction of the amount stolen. Authorities say arrests are pending.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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