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The Weird Week in Review

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Dealing Drugs in the Police Station Bathroom

A 24-year-old man in Everett, Washington was overheard making a drug deal on his cell phone in the men's room. Of the Everett Police Department. Two officers heard the phone call and confronted him outside. The unnamed man said he thought he was in a probation officer's office. He surrendered some Oxycodone to the police and was arrested on drug charges.

Goat Arrested for Armed Robbery

A vigilante group in Ilorin, Nigeria apprehended a group of would-be car thieves, including a goat! Local police paraded the animal in public as a robbery suspect. The story is that one of the men seen attempting to carjack a Mazda turned himself into a goat in an attempt to elude capture, according to police spokesman Tunde Mohammed. It is not known whether the goat has retained legal counsel.

14-year-old Patrols Chicago

Police are investigating how a 14-year old boy passed himself off as a Chicago police officer for an entire shift. When he showed up for work in uniform, he was assigned a patrol in a squad car. He never drove or handled a gun, but the deception was not noticed until his shift was over.

Assistant Superintendent James Jackson said the ruse was discovered only after the boy's patrol with an actual officer ended Saturday. Officers noticed his uniform lacked a star that is part of the regulation uniform.

Police said they were investigating how the deception went undetected for so long in what they described as a serious security breach.

Police didn't identify the boy because of his age. He has been charged as a juvenile with impersonating an officer.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Get Sued!

150eddiehouse.jpg53-year-old Eddie House of San Carlos, California recycles, composts, and finds homes for his discarded items. He reduced his household waste to the point that he cancelled his garbage pickup service last year. His reward is a lawsuit from the city! The San Carlos municipal code requires all citizens to contract garbage pickup with Allied Waste. Deputy City Attorney Linda Noeske is seeking an injunction compelling House to retain garbage service and pay for the cost of the lawsuit. San Carlos Deputy City Manager Brian Moura said the suit was the result of complaints from neighbors about House burning garbage. House says he only burns wood.

Stove Left On, Fire Station Burns

Firefighters in Nagoya, Japan battled a blaze that started when a cooking stove was left unattended -in a firehouse! A firefighter was alone at the station cooking when he was called out to attend a fire. He left the stove burning. Ten fire trucks from other stations responded to the resulting conflagration. Nagoya City Fire Department official Seiji Hori expressed embarrassment.

"We are an institute that should be in a position to educate people about fire, so we are extremely sorry that such an incident happened," Hori said, adding that they would consider ordering-in for dinner from now on.

Otter Tours Scotland In Mailbag

150_rescueotter.jpgPostman Kenny Wilson was on his way to a car rally when he spotted a lone otter cub freezing on the road near Stow, Scotland on Sunday. He put the orphan in his mailbag and named it Ozzie, although he later changed the name to Orla when the otter turned out to be a female. Wilson bought the pup some kitten milk and continued on his journey. Car enthusiasts at the rally were delighted to see the six-week old otter. After returning to his home in Tweedbank, Wilson took Orla to an animal shelter. He says she seemed to have enjoyed her 220-mile round trip. A spokesman for the animal shelter says Orla is doing fine and is eating about $30 worth of salmon every day.

Traffic Stop Finds Man Who Faked Death

A man was pulled over for a traffic violation in Weaverville, North Carolina Saturday. He first gave police a false name, then admitted he is Bennie Wint, who went missing in 1989 while swimming in Florida. Rescuers had searched for hours, but never found a body. Wint said he went from Florida to Alabama after faking his death because he was paranoid about his drug activities. Wint left a 4-year-old daughter behind, who is now 23 and has been looking for her father. Since the 1989 incident, Wint fathered another child and opened a business selling NASCAR items under an assumed identity.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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