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The Weird Week in Review

Couple Sold Pot for a Good Cause

Michael Foster and Susan Cooper, both in their 60s, of Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, England, were arrested for running a marijuana-growing operation that netted an estimated £400,000. Both had good standing in their community before officers noticed the smell of cannabis coming from their farm house. Officers found 159 pot plants inside and an elaborate growing operation. The two were sentenced to three years in jail. They didn't use their proceeds for a lavish lifestyle, however. Over the past few years, Foster and Cooper sent money to a village in Kenya to pay for school tuition, hospital equipment, and emergency medical care for villagers.

Milton Keynes Cows Made Into Skeletons

Concrete cows have been a familiar sight in a Bancroft park in Milton Keynes, England, since 1978. Since then, the sculptures have been stolen, beheaded, and painted in various fashions, including once having pajamas painted on. But a recent prank that left the bovines painted with skeletons may be the last straw. Officials are considering removing the cows permanently. But not everyone took offense at the latest act of vandalism.

Milton Keynes resident Fiona Norrie said: "I don't know if I should be angry, because they've done a really good job. It's very detailed.

"We don't condone graffiti obviously, but it's pretty awesome. It's art."

Hamster Taken into Protective Custody

Nicole Huey was pulled over by police in Beaverton, Oregon, on suspicion that she was driving impaired. She was found to be driving with a hamster in her lap. Huey was taken to jail on a charge of driving under the influence. She told the officers that there was no one who could come and get the hamster and that they "should just kill it." It took three officers to capture the hamster, which did not want to exit the vehicle. The hamster was taken to an emergency veterinary clinic for the night. Huey claimed the hamster later in the day.

The Fork in the Road is Taken

A six-foot-tall fork appeared in Carlsbad, California, in the traffic island at the intersection of Levante Street and Anillo Way on Tuesday. The unnamed artist is a 62-year-old retired teacher who said he was impressed by the joke in The Muppet Movie in which the characters encounter a giant silverware fork when they are looking for a fork in the road. Carlsbad residents got a kick out of the sculpture, but a city crew removed it on Wednesday. Another resident erected a sign in its place that says "Why the fork not?" which the city also removed. Then residents then began taping real, normal-sized forks to a nearby sign. A spokesperson for the city said the sculpture is a code violation.

Mice Bred to Detect Land Mines

A Belgian company has seen some success by training rats to detect land mines. Those HeroRats need nine months of training before they work, however, so Charlotte D'Hulst of Hunter College, New York, and her team are trying to breed mice that are born to do the job. A modified gene makes the mice's olfactory receptors particularly sensitive to TNT, causing them to react in some way, such as having a seizure. The mice, called MouSensors, would have to be implanted with trackers to detect the reaction. Although the mechanism for the genetic modification has been presented, the logistics of land mine detection still need to be worked out, and the mice have not been field-tested. The head of the Red Cross's Weapon Contamination Unit said that the mice would only be one of several detection methods used for a particular area suspected of containing land mines.

How Do You Re-Home Homing Pigeons?

Roy Day of Northfleet, Kent, England, had 20 homing pigeons in his garden shed. Neighbors complained of the noise and smell, and the Gravesham Borough Council notified Day that the pigeons were a health problem and that he would have to sell or give his pigeons away. Day says that if he took the pigeons somewhere else, they would come back, because that is what homing pigeons do.

"They gave me a seven day deadline to get rid of them but even if they went 150-odd miles away, they'd still come back - they are homing pigeons."

Forgot Where He Parked for Two Years

An unnamed man in southern Germany got drunk one night and could not find his car. That was in December of 2010. He eventually gave up looking and reported the car as missing to the Munich police. Then last month, a traffic cop gave a car a ticket for having an expired inspection sticker. A check of the car's registration found it to be the missing vehicle, parked four kilometers from the spot where the man thought he left it. The car still had €40,000 worth of tools in the trunk.

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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