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The Weird Week in Review

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Driving Lesson Nearly Causes Air Disaster

A Cebu Pacific Air flight had to pull up suddenly while attempting to land at Legazpi City, Philippines, when the pilot saw a van on the runway! The vehicle was reportedly driven by the son of an airport aviation chief, who was giving his girlfriend a driving lesson. The airplane carrying 80 passengers was able to land after circling long enough for the van to leave the runway.

4-foot Worm Found in Cornwall

Matt Slater, a curator at the Blue Reef Aquarium in Newquay, Cornwall, England and his team were puzzled at the wreck their carefully grown coral reef had become. After weeks of watching the reef fall apart, they decided to take it apart to find the culprit. What they found was a giant reef worm! The four-foot worm is covered with thousands of stinging bristles. The staff nicknamed the worm "Barry", and carefully relocated it into a separate tank at the aquarium. Slater believes it may have arrived as a juvenile in a shipment from another aquarium.

Blowin' In The Wind

Cindy and David Emminger of Malibu, California have had enough of the smell that blows their way from Bob Dylan's estate. They've complained to city officials about the the chemical scent from a portable toilet on the property, apparently used by Dylan's guards. Mayor Andy Stern says no one else has complained, and he will let the city's code enforcement authorities deal with the matter.

"I really have not involved myself in Bob Dylan's toilet, and by the way I haven't involved myself in anyone else's toilet in Malibu," Stern told Reuters.

Bat Launches with Space Shuttle

150spacebat.jpgThe space shuttle Discovery launched from Cape Canaveral on Sunday with a stowaway -a bat hanging on the outside of the external fuel tank! NASA had hoped the little guy would fly away before launch, but he held on, even after the engines roared, and held on at least as far as observers could follow. Images confirm that the bat was alive before launch, but probably did not survive the trip. The bat has been hailed as a hero among bats, and a tribute video has been posted.

Flammable Water Supply

Amee Ellsworth of Fort Lupton, Colorado has flammable water in her home. Her plumbing is contaminated with natural gas. A half-mile away, Renee McClure can produce a three-foot flame by holding a lighter to her running faucet. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission tested and confirmed the contamination, but cannot pinpoint the source of the problem, as there are eight gas wells nearby maintained by two gas companies. It is not known how many other homes are affected, but around 100 homes draw water from the same aquifer as those tested. Meanwhile, Ellsworth is concerned that the water may cause an explosion at any time.

Paraplegic Man Suffers Spider Bite, Walks Again

150_brownrecluse.jpgDavid Blancarte of Manteca, California was confined to a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident paralyzed him 21 years ago. Then a brown recluse spider bit him, sending him to the hospital and then to rehab for eight months. A nurse noticed a muscle spasm in Blancarte's leg, and after five days of therapy, he began walking again! Then, one day after the story of the medical miracle was published, Blancarte was arrested on an outstanding warrant for domestic violence.

Beekeeper Accused of Killing Beekeeper

Donald Robert Alcock of Woodford, Australia, is accused of murdering competing beekeeper Anthony Ross Knight by shooting him in the back of the head while he slept.

Prosecutor Daniel Boyle told the Queensland Supreme Court in Brisbane that Mr Alcock was in serious financial trouble when he went to Mr Knight's property with the intention of stealing honey worth $40,000.

He said Mr Alcock made the decision to shoot Mr Knight when he realised he could not steal the barrels and tubs of honey without waking him.

The police investigation started when Alcock was taken to the hospital after a 1400 kilogram barrel of honey fell on him as he was unloading it. The barrel was marked as owned by Knight.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]