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The Weird Week in Review

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Ping Pong Balls Save Toddler's Life

2-year-old Mackenzie Argaet of Australia was born with biliary artresia. Her liver developed cirrhosis and she received a liver transplant. During surgery, doctors found the liver was too large and pressed on her arteries. So they held the liver back with ping pong balls! Mackenzie has made a remarkable recovery, and the doctor says that her liver will grow around the balls.

Airbag for Elderly Pedestrians

A new product unveiled at the International Home Care and Rehabilitation Exhibition in Tokyo resembles nothing more than a walking airbag. One bag inflates behind the head, the other behind the hips. Sensors in the gadget detect when the wearer is off-balance. The device weighs only 2.5 pounds. It is specifically designed for older people with epilepsy. There is a huge market for products for the elderly in Japan, which has 30 million residents over the age of 65.

Skydivers Over Everest

On October 2nd, around three dozen skydivers will attempt to parachute over Mount Everest. Participants from 14 countries will use larger-than-normal parachutes and will wear oxygen masks.

Hurtling past the 8,850-meter (29,035 feet) peak, the skydivers plan, weather permitting, to freefall for 1 minute before deploying their parachutes and cruising for 8-10 minutes to land in a flat drop zone at 12,350 feet.

A Case of Law and Odor

150cruz.jpgJose Cruz was arrested after he failed a roadside sobriety test in Charleston, West Virginia. During fingerprinting, he passed gas and was hit with an additional charge of battery on an officer! The battery charge was dropped after a request by the Kanawha County prosecutor's office. Cruz still faces charges for DUI and obstruction. See a video report here.

PETA Urges Ice Cream Be Made From Breast Milk

The founders of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream received a letter from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asking them to stop using cow's milk in their ice cream, and use human breast milk instead.

"The fact that human adults consume huge quantities of dairy products made from milk that was meant for a baby cow just doesn't make sense," says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. "Everyone knows that 'the breast is best,' so Ben & Jerry's could do consumers and cows a big favor by making the switch to breast milk."

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield responded by saying they believe a woman's breast milk is "best used for her child."

Fighting Sheep Get the Blues

150bluesheep.jpgA flock of blue sheep was spotted in North Tyneside in England. The farmer had sprayed blue dye on certain parts of the rams before letting his sheep out for mating. The idea was that the dye would transfer to the ewes, indicating which could possibly be pregnant. Instead, or in addition, the rams began fighting with each other, covering themselves completely with blue dye.

Man Sues Over Penis Amputation

61-year-old Philip Seaton of Louisville, Kentucky planned to have a circumcision last October. Instead, he woke up from general anesthesia to find his penis had been amputated! He filed a lawsuit last week against the surgeon, the anesthetist, and the clinic. The explanation he received was that the surgeon found cancer and made an emergency decision. Seaton's attorney Kevin George says the surgeon should have closed the patient up and informed him of the options.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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