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The Weird Week in Review

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You Can't Fire Me Because I'm Drunk!

The highest court in Peru has ruled that the town of Chorrillos must reinstate Pablo Cayo as a janitor. The municipality had fired Cayo for being intoxicated on the job. The court said that the firing was excessive because Cayo did not offend anyone or hurt anyone. Local and federal officials are protesting because the ruling may set a dangerous precedent for future employees.

Cat Evicted from Post Office for Not Paying Taxes

A cat named Sammy was usually seen lounging in the window of the post office in Notasulga, Alabama until someone complained.
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"They said 'This is a federal building and he doesn't pay federal taxes so he can't come in'," said postal worker Rochelle Langford.
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But Sammy's supporters think they have found a way around the banishment. They have rented a post office box in his name!

Worker Shoots Himself Without a Gun

Howard Sheppard of Deltona, Florida went to a hospital with a gunshot wound in his arm. His first story was that a bullet discharged when he picked up a handful of ammunition. His second story was that the ammunition was on a shelf and may have discharged when he threw a hammer and a string trimmer on the shelf. His third story is that he had set the bullet in a vice, set a metal punch into the cartridge primer, and hit it with a hammer.

Snowplow Unknowingly Drags Car A Half Mile

150snowplow.pngA snowplow operator in Colorado City didn't realize he'd been in a traffic accident. He also didn't realize that the car that hit him was still attached until other drivers flagged him down! 70-year-old John Archuleta rear-ended the snowplow Monday morning and his car became entangled in the snowplow's sanding mechanism. Snowplow operator Fredrick Parrent, Jr didn't feel the impact and continued driving for about half a mile. No one was injured in the incident, but Archuleta was cited for careless driving.

Hearse Loses Wheels in Funeral Procession

A funeral procession in Hampshire, England was halted when the wheels fell off of the horse-drawn hearse. Officials believe the horse may have slipped on black ice, causing the hearse to swerve. The coffin, en route to Portchester Crematorium, was transferred to a motor hearse.

Best Job in the World Offered; Applicants Crash Website

150bestjob.jpgQueensland, Australia posted a website with an offer for what they called "The Best Job in the World". They are searching for someone to live on an island in the Great Barrier Reef for six months, enjoy the attractions, and keep a blog about the islands. Hundreds of thousands of applicants in the first few days caused the website to crash, and parts of the site are still out of commission.

107-year-old Seeks First Husband

Wang Guiying of Chongqing, China is 107 years old and has never married. Despite having bound feet, she made her living as a farmer until she was 74 years old, when she moved in with a nephew.

Born in southern Guizhou province the child of a salt merchant, Wang grew up watching her uncles and other men scold and beat their wives and often found her aunt crying in the woodshed after an attack, the paper said.

"All the married people around there lived like that. Getting married was too frightening," she said of an era when Chinese women had few rights and low social standing.

As her nieces and nephews are becoming too old to take care of her, Wang has decided she is ready to take the plunge. Local officials advice her family to contact old people's homes to find a match.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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
Animals
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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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