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The Weird Week in Review

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Puppy Survives Compactor

A puppy in Evansville, Indiana was smashed in a cardboard compactor -and escaped with only a bruise! The female lab-pit bull may have been compacted more than once. The crew who found her at the recycling company is looking for a permanent home for her.

Russian Monument to Enemas

A Russian health spa has erected a statue of three cherubs holding an enema bulb. The spa in Inozemtsevo performs a lot of enemas and decided to use a sense of humor when commissioning the artwork. Artist Svetlana Avakova was inspired by Botticeli's painting Venus and Mars when she designed the 1.5 meter statue.
"The irony is that the little infants steal the weapons of Mars. They joke with him, with the god of war, and war is a tragedy."
"Likewise, an enema is an unpleasant procedure as many of us may know. But when cherubs do it, it's all right."

Lemonade Stand Robbed

A group of children in Terra Haute, Indiana were robbed of $17.50 at their lemonade stand. 18-year-old Steven Tryon grabbed the money from Dominique Morefield's hand and ran off. Morefield chased the thief while calling police on her cell phone. Tryon hid in a house for 45 minutes while police tried to coax him out. He was arrested and jailed on a felony robbery charge. The $17.50 was returned to the children.

Duck Walks Miles to Save Ducklings

150ducklings.jpgSix baby ducks fell into a storm drain in Gosforth, Newcastle. The mother duck couldn't fit through the grate, so she walked along the path of the sewer pipe, following the sounds of duckling cries. She had to cross highways and a railroad to keep up with them. The journey stopped at a manhole, where the duck quacked for help for hours. Passers by lifted the manhole cover with a crowbar and brought all six ducklings to safety.

Sometimes It Rains Cement

The Russian Air Force often uses silver iodide and cement powder to seed clouds before a public holiday, ensuring nice weather for celebration. Last week, one of the 55-pound bags of cement "failed to pulverize" and crashed through a Moscow home, leaving a three foot hole. No one was injured, but the homeowner refused a settlement from the Air Force, preferring to sue for damages.

Pi Crop Circle

150cropcircle.jpgA "mind-boggling" crop circle has been spotted in a barley field in Wiltshire, England. The design is a code that represents the first ten digits of pi. The inner circle goes around in segments with each digit represented by tenths of the circle, or 36 degrees, with a radial jump to advance to the next digit. There is even a dot representing the decimal point.

It can also be argued that every circle represents pi.

Village Re-elects Dead Mayor

Citizens in the village of Voinesti in Romania have voted to re-elect Neculai Ivascu as mayor, despite the fact that he died of liver failure last Sunday. Ivascu received 23 more votes than his rival, Gheorghe Dobrescu. However, the election commission decided to give the election to Dobrescu as runner-up. Ivascu's political party has indicated it will contest the decision.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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