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The Weird Week ending February 29th

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Robbers Target Club During Biker Meeting

Two masked men with machetes went to a Sydney, Australia nightclub intending to rob the place. They picked the night that about 50 members of the Southern Cross Cruiser motorcycle club were holding their monthly meeting.

"These guys were absolutely dumb as bricks," Jerry Vancornewal, leader of the bikers, told CNN Thursday. "I can't believe they saw all the bikes parked up front and they were so stupid that they walked past in."

The bikers subdued one robber and restrained him with electrical wire. The other crashed through a glass door and jumped off the balcony to escape. Police arrested him nearby. A third person, waiting in a car, has not been apprehended.

Elephant Fitted with Prosthetic Leg150_elephantleg.jpg

A young elephant in Thailand was the vicim of a land mine near the border with Myanmar and lost one of her front legs. Veterinarians at the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang province have made Mocha a new leg, and reporting that she is able to walk more easily on all four legs.

Traffic Cops take Ballet Lessons

Police officers charged with directing traffic in Timisoara, Romania have been sent to dance class to get their moves down.

"The aim is to develop an ability to regulate traffic and achieve elegance in their movements, which will not only be agreeable to the eyes but could also help drivers waiting at a red light get rid of their stress or sadness," the head of the community police in the town of Timisoara, Dorel Cojan, told AFP.

The twice-a-week classes are taught by two former members of the Timisoara Opera Ballet. See a video here.

Woman Gives Birth To Child Nearly Her Own Size

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33-year-old Stacey Herald is 28.5 inches tall. She was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. Five weeks ago, Herald gave birth to an 18-inch daughter! Her first child, Katira, has the same genetic disorder, but the new baby Makaia is expected to grow to normal height. For years, doctors told the northern Kentucky woman that she wouldn't survive a pregnancy. Now, officials from the Guinness Book of World Records are investigating Herald's claim to be the smallest woman who ever gave birth.

Deadly Cactus Found in Australia

An invasive species of cactus, native to Mexico, has been found in Mundubbera, Australia. The spines of the Hudson pear cactus are so tough they can penetrate tires, and pliers are required to remove them from flesh! They have been known to kill koalas who cannot remove the spines and then develop infections. The plant was introduced to Australia as a garden plant, but has spread over hundreds of miles and threatens the value of farmland.

Counterfeit Ferrari Ring Busted150FakeFerrari.jpg

Police in Rome uncovered a business that cobbled together fake parts to produce counterfeit Ferrari sportscars. 21 automobiles were confiscated, including 14 which had already been sold. Authorities believe the buyers knew the cars were not actual Ferraris. The cars were sold for around 20,000 euros, or about a tenth of the price of a real Ferrari.

Large Truck vs. Small Tunnel

A flatbed truck carrying an oversized crane was caught on video entering the Ted Williams Tunnel in Boston Tuesday. The driver didn't stop, despite warning lights that were triggered by overheight sensors. The video shows sparks flying as the crane became detached. The truck finally stopped when the crane ripped the tunnel's ceiling. No one was injured, but it took an hour and a half to clear the wreckage.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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