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The Weird Week ending March 21st

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Police Chase Stolen Donut Truck

Frank Alvarado took advantage of a Donut Delite van as the driver was making a delivery in Toledo, Ohio. He led officers on a chase that reached speeds of 100 miles per hour. Nine police vehicles from two counties and one city force were in pursuit before the truck was stopped.

"What strikes me as a bit out of the ordinary in this case is the number of officers who were able to respond," said Rich Vander Mey, assistant Tama County Attorney. "I don't know whether the fact that the stolen vehicle contained donuts has anything to do with that."

Donut Delite donated their goods to the police officers involved in the chase.

Sweaters Made from Dead Dog Hair140Sweaters.jpg

After Beth and Brian Willis of Newcastle, England lost their two beloved doogs, they heard about Princess Diana wearing a dog fur stole. Inspired, they collected dog hair from their carpets and brushes, and had it spun into yarn, which Mrs. Willis used to knit two sweaters. Mr. Willis wears his dog hair sweater every Saturday when he goes into town.

Woman Goes for Leg Operation, Gets New Anus Instead

A German woman is suing a hospital in Hochfranken, Bavaria for malpractice, aftert the performed the wrong operation. She was to have surgery on her leg, but the clinic confused her with an incontinence patient. The unnamed woman received a new anus instead. She is looking for another hospital to operate on her leg.

150drill.pngBrain surgeon operates with DIY drill

British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh uses an expensive medical drill when he does brain surgery in London. But when he travels to Ukraine twice a year to perform free surgery at the clinic of colleague Igor Petrovich, he uses a £30 Bosch 9.6 volt battery-operated hand tool.

"There's not a huge difference," he said. "The drill is Igor's solution. It's simply an ordinary drill which he uses with the standard medical drill bits."

Crucifixion can be Bad for your Health

Every Easter, dozens of voluntary crucifixions take place in the Philippines, as men re-enact the flagellation and crucifixion of Jesus with real whips and nails. The Philippine department of health issued a warning for participants to have tetanus shots beforehand, and to check the cleanliness of the whips used to guard against infection.

Woman on Toilet Attacked by Rat

Maxine Killingback of Deptford, England was sitting on the toilet when a rat bit her! She jumped up and flushed the rat, using a plunger to keep him from escaping. She had to barricade the toilet because there were other rats trying to get out. The local housing council told her it would be three weeks before they could do anything about it. Killingback left her home for the night.

Rattlesnake Vodka Seized150vodak.jpg

Agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission raided Bayou Bob's Brazos River Rattlesnake Ranch in Palo Pinto county and seized 411 bottles of unlicenced vodka. Each bottle also contained a ten-inch rattlesnake. Bob Popplewell, the owner of Bayou Bob's, is expected to face charges of selling alcohol without a permit. Alcohol containing snakes or scorpions is popular in Asia, where it is believed to have aphrodisiac properties.

Fleeing Shoplifter Forgets Son

A 45-year-old man in Amsterdam stole a package of meat from a supermarket was spotted by a store employee. The shoplifter was so intent on making a getaway that he drove away and left his 12-year-old son behind. Police contacted the man through his son, but he refused to come pick up the boy, saying the police should contact his mother instead. The man eventually turned himself in.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]