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The Weird Week in Review

Swedish Chef Told to Stop Making Good Food

Annika Eriksson is the head cook at a school in Falun, Sweden. Her students have enjoyed extraordinarily good meals, including fresh-baked bread and a vegetable buffet with over a dozen different offerings. School officials told her the food she was serving to the students was too good -and that she will have to scale it back because it's not fair to students at other schools in the district. Her vegetable buffet will be limited to half as many choices, and she must serve store-bought bread. Students at Eriksson's school have started a petition to protest the ruling.

Teenager Hit by Falling Chicken Parts

Cassie Bernard was in the middle of a horseback riding lesson last week in Assawoman, Virginia, when she was hit in the head by a chicken part falling from the sky. Bernard was not injured, as she was wearing a helmet. Several chicken parts fell from the sky, but no other students were hit. Officials from a nearby Tyson chicken processing plant denied the parts came from them. State Land Protection Manager Milton Johnston said the parts most likely came from improperly discarded chickens who died on a farm.

"We can't have pieces of chicken falling out of the sky," Johnston said.

Everybody at the farm looked up to see where the strange objects came from, but the clear blue sky didn't hold any clues.

"It was kind of odd; it made me think about the movie back in the 1980s, The Gods Must be Crazy," said Bruce Penland, who was at the farm. The comedy recounts the strange chain of events that occurs after a soda bottle falls from the sky and lands among a primitive tribe in the Kalahari Desert.

The parts may have been dropped by flying gulls.

Blue Honey Traced to M&Ms

Beekeepers in northeastern France were puzzled to find their hives were full of honey in strange blue and green tints. Although flowers bloom in colors, the nectar from them is usually colorless. The culprit turned out to be candy-coated M&Ms! A biogas plant near Ribeauville in Alsace had contracted with a Mars candy manufacturer to process the plant's waste products, which included the colored candy and food dye. The biogas company was red-faced when confronted with blue honey, and promised to rectify the situation by immediately covering the waste to prevent bees from eating it, and to process the materials as soon as possible. The blue and green honey will not be sold.

Caring for Pandas Dressed as Pandas

China's panda research program includes a plan for releasing pandas into the forest on their own. Tao Tao is the first panda born in captivity to be released into the wild. The cub has been housed at a semi-wild panda facility -and has never seen a human. Workers who cared for Tao Tao and his mother Cao Cao always dressed in Panda costumes, which are smeared with panda urine and feces to disguise the smell of humans. The two pandas were gradually moved to denser forest with less human intervention over the course of two years to prepare them for the final release in the mountains in Wolong, in southwest China’s Sichuan Province. The release is not a true goodbye: Tao Tao will wear a GPS collar and has an implanted ID chip so he can be tracked.

Substantial Penalty for Terminating Cell Phone Contract

Solenne San Jose of Pessac, France, terminated her cell phone contract before it expired. Telecom Bouygues warned her there would be a penalty fee on her next bill. There certainly was -the woman was billed €11,721,000,000,000,000. That is more money than is in circulation in Europe altogether! San Jose called the company to complain, and they offered to help her work out a payment plan -twice. Then they charged her another €12.50 each time she called about the bill. The company finally admitted the bill was an error, but the story does not say whether that was before or after the story hit the news media.

Occubaby Arrives

Last year, Kaylee Dedrick was pepper-sprayed by police at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York City. Robert Grodt stepped up to treat her face and …they fell in love. A year later, the two welcomed 7-pound Tegan Kathleen Grodt into the world.

"Nothing strengthens a relationship like a chemical agent," Grodt told The Daily News earlier this week.

As a memento for their hard days fighting for the 99 percent, OWS Screen Guild sent the newly-minted parents a white onesie with “Occupy Wall Street” printed in fat orange letters.

The media couldn't resist dubbing Tegan "Occubaby." She was born on September 28th.

Goat Rescue Ends Unexpectedly

A goat in West Yorkshire, England, is locally known as Black Rock Billie. Last week, Billie stepped onto a ledge of a cliff and stayed there -for four days. Assuming the goat was stuck, and wanting to forestall amateur rescuers, the Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team strung up a rope system to lower a rescuer to the goat. The three-hour operation came to a head when a man reached the ledge, and that's when Billie decided she'd stood there long enough, and simply leaped away, trotted down the hill, and appeared perfectly fine. The operation was captured on video.

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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
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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