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The Weird Week in Review

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This week, the weird news appears to point toward an uprising of animals against people. Go figure.

Dog Eats Crime Weapon

Antonio Vasquez Jr. was arrested in Fresno, California in a bizarre burglary. He is accused of entering a home and rubbing spices on one resident, and using a sausage to hit another in the head. The spices and sausage belonged to the residents. The suspect discarded the sausage, which was eaten by a dog. Lt. Ian Burrimond sais it was one of the strangest cases he's seen.

"That's right, the dog ate the weapon," Burrimond said.

"I tell you, this was one weird case."

78-year-old to Celebrate Bar Mitzvah

Bernie Marks is practicing singing the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony that marks the symbolic passage to manhood. But at 78, Marks is a bit past the traditional age. When he was 13, he was living in a Polish ghetto under Nazi rule. Later, his family was sent to Auschwitz where he last saw his mother and brother. Marks and his father were sent to a labor camp until they were liberated by US forces in 1945. Until recently, it was frowned upon for older men to be Bar Mitzvahed, but rabbi Mona Alfi sees no problem in righting the wrongs of the past.

Surfer Towed by Shark

John Morgan was surfing off the coast of Byron Bay, Australia, when a shark became entangled in his leg rope. The frightened shark reacted by quickly swimming to sea.

''I had just come off a wave when I saw a large swirl of water,'' MrMorgan told The Northern Star newspaper.

''I was then suddenly hauled backwards ... like I was riding behind a powerful jet ski.''

Morgan was dragged about 50 meters before the shark broke free. He considers himself lucky he wasn't bitten.

Flying Fish Breaks Teenager's Jaw

150Silver-Asian-carp_g_320.jpg15-year-old Seth Russell was riding an inner tube towed by a boat in Arkansas' Lake Chicot when a fish flew out of the water and hit him in the face. He was knocked unconscious and taken to a hospital, where he underwent surgery to wire his teeth together. The fish was a Silver Asian carp, a species imported in the 70s to clean ponds. There have been several incidents of injuries caused by the fish at Lake Chicot.

Bear Jumps Into Man's Fishing Boat

A unidentified 51-year-old man was fishing at a marina near the Canadian Pacific coast when a black bear swam across a river, climbed onto a dock, then jumped into the boat and attacked him! The man's companions managed to kill the bear. The victim was airlifted to a hospital in Victoria, where he is recovering from his wounds.

Bees Kill Six After Truck Overturns

150bees.jpgA truck carrying bee hives collided with a farm vehicle in Changchun, China, releasing thousands of honeybees. Three people were stung to death, and three more died in a collision as traffic swerved to avoid the swarm. It took workers in protective clothing several hours to clear the debris. China accounts for nearly half of the world's honey production.

Virginity for Sale to Pay for College

22-year-old Natalie Dylan (not her real name) will conduct an auction for the right to take her virginity. She has completed a bachelor's degree, and is hoping for $1,000,000 in order to pay for graduate school. eBay turned down the auction, so it will be held at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a legal brothel in Nevada. No date has been set for the auction.

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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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