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The Weird Week in Review

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For some reason, this week's weird news roundup features many lost and found items.

Fisherman Finds Lost Ring After 21 Years

An unnamed fisherman landed an 8-pound bass on Lake Sam Rayburn in Texas and found a class ring inside it. An internet search led him to the owner of the ring, 41-year-old Joe Richardson, who was surprised to ever see the ring again. He had lost it while fishing only two weeks after his graduation -in 1987! His mother was upset at the time because the ring cost $200. She should be happy with this news.

Newborn Found in Manger

Father Thomas Rein of the Catholic church of St Peter and St Paul in Poettmes, Germany went to the church sanctuary for midday prayers last week and heard a baby crying. The newborn boy had been laid in the manger of the church's nativity scene.
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'We prepared the crib in the pre-Christmas period so children could lay fresh straw in it and ponder on the meaning of Jesus and Lo! There really was a Jesus-child in it!' he said excitedly.
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Emergency services took the baby to a pediatric clinic, where the nurses called him Peter after the name of the church. The baby is doing well, and his 38-year-old Romanian mother has been found. She had left him in the church because of a "difficult personal situation."

2,700-year-old Pot Stash Discovered

A 2,700-year-old grave unearthed in the Gobi Desert near Turpan, China revealed the world's oldest marijuana stash! The grave belonged to a blue-eyed Caucasian man buried with a number of valuable items. DNA tests reveal that two pounds of what was assumed to be coriander is actually marijuana. Characteristics of the plant indicate it was grown and harvested for its psychoactive properties. It has lost its potency over the years.

Snake Survives Week in Car Fan

150fansnake.jpgNoel Padgham of Yarrawonga, Australia wondered what was making that awful noise in her car. After a week of hearing it, she took the car for a check. Mechanics suspected something was stuck in the air conditioning fan. Air-conditioning mechanic Kit Carson found a meter-long carpet python in the fan case.
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"He'd been spinning around like a bloody washing machine, but the end of his tail must have been hanging out - it was all feathered and ratty."
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The snake was taken to an animal hospital, where five centimeters of his tail had to be amputated, but he is expected to make an otherwise full recovery.

Woman Swept to Sea During Proposal

45-year-old Scott Napper met 22-year-old Leafil Alforque on the internet in 2005. On Saturday, three days into her visit from the Philippines to his hometown in Oregon, he took her to Proposal Rock near Neskowin Beach in order to give her a ring and ask her to marry him. As they approached the rock, a wave knocked the 93-pound woman down and swept her into the ocean. As Napper searched frantically, a bystander called rescue workers, who were on the scene within minutes. They looked for Alforque for two days before calling off the search, but her family hopes the body can still be found. Police do not suspect foul play.

World's Oldest Living Animal Discovered

125oldtortoise.jpgA picture of a tortoise taken in 1900 during the Boer War was recently sold at auction. The buyer did some investigating and found the tortoise is still alive and living on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. He belongs to the government of the British territory. Jonathon was a mature tortoise of about 50 years when he was brought to the island in 1882, which makes him around 176 years old! He lives on the governor's plantation and is still active enough to mate with three female tortoises regularly. Jonathon is believed to be blind in one eye, but that hasn't slowed him down.

130,000 Misplaced Inflatable Breasts

The Australian men's magazine Ralph planned a promotion with their January issue: they were going to insert inflatable breasts as a gift. That's not likely to happen now, because the shipment of 130,000 inflatables was lost at sea. Literally lost, since no one seems to know what happened. They were there when the ship left Beijing, but not when it arrived in Sydney. The lost novelties were worth around $200,000, a big blow for the magazine whose parent company is currently $4 billion in debt.

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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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