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The Weird Week ending January 25th

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Snakes on a Plane

Authorities in Vietnam seized a literal ton of ratsnakes packed into 60 boxes aboard a Vietnam Airline flight from Thailand.The snakes are a protected species, Ptyas Mucosus, and may have been smuggled out of Thailand bound for other parts of the world. Only a month ago, a similar shipment was confiscated aboard a Thai Airways flight.

Missing Cat Found in Wrong Suitcase125_GracieMae.jpg

Rob Carter of Fort Worth, Texas arrived home from Chicago and collected his luggage at the airport -but picked up the wrong suitcase. When he opened the suitcase, a kitten jumped out!

"I must have jumped six feet into the air and screamed like a girl," said Carter.

A phone number on the cat's collar connected Carter with frantic cat owner Kelly Levy in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Gracie Mae had snuck into her husband Seth's suitcase before he flew to Fort Worth. Carter took the cat to Seth Levy, who purchased a ticket to take Gracie Mae home to Florida.

Crook Called Cab for Getaway

Most burglars make arrangements to get away from the scene of the crime. But 22-year-old Gareth Waith of Cardiff, Wales called a taxi from the victim's house after he took $6800 in goods from his neighbor Katie Battiscombe while she was out. He was identified by the fingerprints he left behind and sentenced to three years in jail.

Bicycle-Riding Parrot Smuggler Foiled

Border guards in Dubki, Belarus confronted a man attempting to smuggle in 277 parrots, aboard a bicycle! The parrots were stuffed like sardines into six boxes. The man fled back to Ukraine, abandoning the birds and the bicycle. Two birds had died, and the rest will eventually go to petshops in Belarus.


NASA Photo Shows Humanoid Figure on Mars

NASA's robot explorer Spirit sent back a picture taken at the Gusev Crater on Mars which appears to show an almost humanoid character. The picture bears an uncanny resemblance to the legendary Bigfoot. See a side-by-side comparison. Read what the Planetary Society has to say.

Cattle Rustlers Crash Car With Cow in Back Seat

Thieves in the state of Kedah, Malaysia somehow managed to get an adult cow into the back seat of a mid-sized sedan. They may have gotten away with the crime, if they hadn't crashed the car into a tree. The cow was injured in the accident, and local villagers slaughtered it. The rustlers escaped on foot. No word on the cause of the crash, although a cow in the backseat could have caused a distraction for the driver.

Man Wakes up at His Own Wake

Relatives has arranged a fine funeral for 81-year old Feliberto Carrasco of Angol, Chile. He was dressed in his finest suit for the wake, surrounded by family and friends. But then he woke up!

"I couldn't believe it. I thought I must be mistaken, and I shut my eyes," Carrasco's nephew Pedro told the daily Ultimas Noticias.

"When I opened them again, my uncle was looking at me. I started to cry and ran to get something to open up the coffin to get him out."

Carrasco said he wasn't in any pain.

Mail is as Slow as Snails125snail_mail.jpg

Michal Szybalski of Warsaw, Poland received a priority mail letter on January 3rd that was sent on December 20th. So he did the math. The letter traveled 11.1 kilometers in 294 hours, so its speed was 0.03775 kilometers per hour. Szybalski calculated that a garden snail travels at around 0.048 kilometers per hour, faster than the Warsaw mail service. Snail mail, indeed!

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.