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The Weird Week in Review

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Surfer Finds Teeth Two Days Later

67-year-old Phillip Worth was surfing Australia's coast at Terrigal on New Year's Eve when he lost his upper plate in the waves. As he was 100 meters out into the ocean, he never imagined he'd see the teeth again. Two days later, Worth was at the beach when the dentures washed onto shore! He says they are even better than when he lost them.

"They're sharper I noticed, truly."

Bullet Stopped by Hair Weave

Briana Bonds drove to a store in Kansas City, where her ex-boyfriend spotted her and shot  into her car. The rear window was shattered under the force of four or five shots as Bonds drove away. Later, a bullet was recovered from Bonds' hair! Bonds believes her tightly-woven hair extensions slowed the bullet and protected her from harm. The boyfriend, Juan Kemp, and another man were arrested in the incident.

Goat Breaks into Home, Eats Cake

Sherry Shirley of Westford, Wisconsin opened her front door to let her dog in Saturday, and a goat rushed inside, jumped onto a kitchen counter, and began to eat a cake that was cooling. A neighbor pulled he goat outside by its horns before police arrived. Captain Molly Soblewski said the goat left tracks leading to a farm.

"The goat didn't do a lot of damage. It knocked some dishes to the floor that broke and began eating the chocolate cake she had just made," Soblewski said.

"It was just an unfortunate circumstance," she said. "I feel sorry for the lady, but it is kind of funny."

Ireland's Worst Driver Identified

150prawojazdy.jpgTraffic police in Ireland had continually cited Prawo Jazdy for various driving and parking violations, but Mr. Jazdy always gave a different address. The mystery driver was recently unveiled when it was pointed out that "Prawo Jazdy", the words at the top of the license, is Polish for "driver's license"! Poles are Ireland's most numerous immigrant group. A search revealed that Prawo Jazdy was ticketed over 50 times! Presumably, Irish police have learned two words of Polish through the embarrassing incident.

Indiana Woman Lonely After 23 Marriages

Linda Wolfe of Anderson, Indiana is in the Guiness Book of World Records as the most married woman, with 23 marriages under her belt. Now 68, Wolfe has been single for twelve years, but is open to the possibility of getting hitched for the 24th time.

"I would get married again," she said, "because, you know, it gets lonely." 

Giant Rat Caught in China

120giantrat.jpgA six-pound rat was caught in Fuzhou, Fujian, China by a Mr. Xian, who grabbed the rat after he saw a crowd gathered around it. The rat had a 12-inch tail and teeth an inch long. Forestry officials who saw pictures think it's a Chinese bamboo rat, which rarely grow over ten inches long, but cannot be sure until they examine the rat itself. The world's largest rat is the African giant pouched rat, which can grow up to 36 inches long.

Woman Captures Suspect with Wedgie

Veterinary technician Yvonne Morris of Salt Lake City, Utah apprehended a man she saw breaking into a co-worker's car in an unorthodox manner. She chased the suspected thief, then grabbed his boxer shorts and pulled! After administering the wedgie, she took him in a head lock until police arrived. The unidentified man was arrested for attempted burglary and outstanding warrants.

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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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