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The Weird Week in Review

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Psychotic Episode is Performance Art

Art student Anna Odell of the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Sweden staged a suicide attempt and got herself admitted to the psychiatric ward of St. Göran's Hosptial in Stockholm. She struggled with the staff, but later admitted that the whole episode was an act for her senior art project at the school. The hospital staff is understandably upset that Odell not only assaulted health care workers when she was admitted, but she also tied up resources for others who were waiting for help.

Carjacking a Patrol Car

18-year-old John Lewis Johnson was arrested in Dallas for carjacking Saturday. It was his fourth attempt of the day. The car he selected was a marked police patrol car with a uniformed officer inside! Johnson opened the car door and demanded that Sgt. Charles Young surrender his gun and car. Young did not, but instead chased Johnson a short way and arrested him.

Judge Rules TV an Essential Service

A man in Brazil sued appliance dealer Casas Bahia for not replacing a damaged television set he had purchased. In handing down the decision in favor of the plaintiff, the judge ruled that television is an essential part of life.

"In modern life, you cannot deny that a television set, present in almost all homes, is considered an essential good," ruled the judge from Campos, a town north of Rio de Janeiro.

"Without it, how can the owner watch the beautiful women on 'Big Brother,' the national news broadcast or a football game," the judge quipped.

Tractor in Disguise

150cowmaflage.pngFarmer Paul Coppin tried an unusual tactic to rid his farm of rabbits. He disguised his tractor as a cow! The tractor features plywood sides painted with a picture of a cow plus a firing platform and a gun slit. He admits the camouflage is not foolproof. They may believe a cow can move, but the tree painted on along with it moves, too! See a video report here.

Woman Bites Driver Over Non-Hybrid Bus

49-year-old Shelia Bolar had waited an hour to ride a gas/electric hybrid vehicle when she boarded a city bus in New York. The bus was not a hybrid, so she took her anger out on driver Peter Williams. Williams called a dispatcher for security in case Ms. Bolar got out of hand. When he stopped at West 79th street, Bolar grabbed his arm and bit him! Williams was left with bruises but no broken skin. Bolar faces assault charges after a psychiatric evaluation.

Self-dentistry in the UK

150teeth.jpgBritish war veteran Ian Boynton faced a toothache without an active account with an NHS (National health Service) dentist. He couldn't afford private treatment, so he took a pair of pliers and removed 13 of his own teeth! The teeth were removed over a two-year period. Boynton claims he contacted 30 dentists in the past eight years. but none were willing to take on a NHS patient.

Doctor Jailed for Taking 50 Cents 24 Years ago

In Pratna, India 75-year-old doctor Balgovind Prasad was sentenced to jail for accepting a 50 cent bribe in 1985. The case has been active all this time. Prasad was found guilty in 1992. The judge ruled that Prasad should serve one year, but that sentenced was reduced to three month by a higher court.

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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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iStock
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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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