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The Weird Week in Review

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Iowa Teen Abandoned in Nebraska

A new law in Nebraska states that any child can be relinquished by anyone at a hospital without incurring abandonment charges. The broadly-worded law was meant to protect children from parents who could not care for them. A couple in Council Bluffs, Iowa took advantage of the law by driving their granddaughter over the state line and leaving her at a Omaha hospital. The 14-year-old girl was the first child relinquished from out of state. The girl was returned to her family in Iowa after the grandparents changed their minds. Since the law was passed, 17 children have been relinquished at hospitals in Nebraska, including a group of nine siblings and one 15-year-old boy.

Woman Spends £10,000 So Cat Can Meow

Jean Kelly of Olney, Buckinghamshire, England noticed her cat Cadbury was quiet -too quiet. She took him to the vet and found he had a paralyzed larynx, a rare condition preventing him from meowing. Two surgeries were required to correct this condition. He also spent six days on oxygen and four months in nursing care, for a total cost of £10,000. Kelly's pet health insurance covered £6,000 of the cost, leaving her to pay the other £4,000. Kelly, who postponed a vacation in Africa to pay for Cadbury's bills, said it was worth it to hear her 13-year-old cat meow again.

1847 Law Keeps Cabbies from Bathroom

Cab driver David Finnegan was confronted by a council officer in Darlington, England when he parked his cab to use a public restroom nine feet away. The officer cited an 1847 law that says,

"If the driver of any hackney carriage leave it in any street or at any place of public resort or entertainment, whether it be hired or not, without some one proper to take care of it, any constable may drive away such hackney carriage and deposit it."

Finnegan, who has driven a cab for twenty years, objected to the law, saying it would prevent him from ever leaving his cab for any reason. As the regulation was intended for horse-and-carriage drivers, the Darlington Council said they would dispose of the matter informally.

National Debt Clock Runs Out of Digits

150debtclock.jpgThe National Debt Clock has been keeping track of the US debt in Times Square since 1989. When Seymour Durst installed the clock, the national debt was 2.7 trillion. Last month, the digital dollar sign was removed in anticipation of the debt passing the 10 trillion dollar mark. Now the place where the dollar sign was accommodates the new digit. A new clock will be erected early next year, with space for a debt of a quadrillions dollars. The current national debt is 10.2 trillion dollars, which may go to 11 trillion due to the financial bailout package.

Swimming the Palace Moat Naked

Japan's Emperor and Empress live in a palace in Tokyo surrounded by 12 moats. On Tuesday, a man who later identified himself as a British tourist jumped into the moat naked and led police on a chase that lasted an hour and a half. At one point, he left the water to chase police with a pole and throw rocks at them. He also scaled the 8 meter palace wall before returning to the water. The man was finally arrested and later released.

Couple Saw Home in Half

150halfhome.jpgA couple in Cambodia have separated from each other by cutting their home in half! After being married for almost 40 years, the two decided to live apart, and thought this would be the most equitable way to do it. The wife will remain in her half of the home in its current location; the husband will live with his parents until he reconstructs his half at another site.

Python Tried to Eat Zoo Owner's Head

Renate Klosse runs a zoo in Uhldingen, Germany. Last weekend, she was cleaning out the cage of a Tiger python named Antonia when the snake attacked her!

'The jaws of the snake opened so wide that, with one lunge, she was able to completely cover the woman's face,' said a police spokeswoman.

'She feared that with a few more gulps her head would be inside.'

Klosse stuck her thumbs into the snake's jaws while her coworkers sprayed the snake with a water hose. The snake then let go, and Klosse was treated at a hospital for bite wounds and shock.

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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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