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Jesus Spotted in Pancake (and 6 other places)

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My favorite things about Slow News Days are the wealth of religious sightings that seem to crop up. Whether it's Jesus making an appearance on a snack food, or other religious figures spotted in knots of wood, local news crews are always there to get the scoop. Here are seven of the my favorite recent religious sightings.

1. In a potato

This past January, Pastor Renee Brewster of Florida's Marion County found something sacred in her starches. Feeling reluctant about making potato salad for her church because it wasn't her normal task, Brewster asked God for a sign that she should continue making the dish. A few moments later, while slicing potatoes, she discovered what she thought was a rotten spot. Her 10-year-old granddaughter saw something else: the image of Jesus on the cross. Brewster keeps the sacred spud on ice to preserve the memory.

2. On a pancake

Picture 231.pngBrewster's sighting was not the first time people have claimed to see Jesus in Florida. Just a few months earlier, in November 2007, a Southern woman got a surprise while frying up pancakes one Sunday morning. Marilyn Smith, from Port St. Lucie, says she was about to put chocolate chips in her pancake, when she saw an outline of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in her food. Whether or not God was asking Smith to post the holy hotcake on eBay is debatable. But within two day it had sold for $338, with over 3,200 online visitors dropping by to gawk at it.

3. In a sonogram

Picture 201.pngWhen 23-year-old Amanda Skelding (now Amanda McLean) discovered her pregnancy in March 2007, she did what most women with child do: she scheduled an ultrasound. At her appointment, she was shocked to see the face of Jesus staring back at her from her womb. McLean suffers from the womb complaint endometriosis and has had two miscarriages. Doctors in her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland, had told her she had less than a one in 10 chance of giving birth to a healthy child, but she was now pregnant with a daughter. For McLean, the sighting came as total reassurance and she claimed that she felt someone was looking out for her child before it was born.

4. On a kitten

Picture 211.pngThis summer in South Bend, Indiana, Lori Johnson took in two small kittens that she found abandoned by her home. The Johnsons dubbed the kittens, presumably siblings, Sissy and Bubby. One afternoon, while Lori's husband was petting Sissy, he noticed a mysterious face in the cat's fur. The Johnsons believe it is the face of Jesus covered by the Shroud of Turin.

5. In spumoni

Picture 191.pngIn early July of this year, customers at Hatch Family Chocolates say they caught a glimpse of the image of Christ in the swirls of spumoni, a kind of ice cream. There was a bit of discrepancy about whether this sighting was actually Jesus—some thought the image more closely resembled a Beatle or William Shakespeare. In any case, the staff agreed it was special. Instead of selling the ice cream, the owners decided to save it for a few days and then throw a party to dig in to the delicious—and perhaps divine—treat.

6. On a tree

Picture 241.pngCalifornia is known for its long lasting, destructive wildfires during the dry season. However, last year, something beautiful came from the ashes. Residents of the area claimed to see an outline of the Holy Mother in this tree's charred trunk on the side of the Sierra Highway in Los Angeles. Hundreds visited the tree and created a makeshift altar by leaving flowers, candles and other offerings. Some people even left notes asking for special blessings. The tree was cut down and saved be county road crews.

7. On a grilled cheese sandwich

Picture 251.png Perhaps the most famous religious sighting is the image of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich. In 1994, Diane Duyser saw the image of the Holy Mother just as she was about to take a bite. The Florida resident claims that she did nothing to preserve the sandwich and just placed it in a box for the 10 years, yet it never crumbled or grew mold. In 2004, she placed the sacred sandwich on eBay and it eventually sold for a whopping $28,000. By the time the sandwich auction closed, the sale had received over 1.7 million hits on the auction site. The sandwich was purchased by, an internet casino. They claimed they would take the sandwich on tour so that people all over the world could view the image and then donate the money earned through ticket sales to charity. The item briefly inspired sellers to place dozens of spin-off items on the online auction site, including attempts at replica burnt toast, T-shirts, ornamental plates, and domain names.

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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]