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The Weird Week in Review

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Toilet Sausage Causes Prison Evacuation

130 inmates at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington state were evacuated Wednesday evening when smoke was seen coming out of a sewer vent. The cause of the smoke was found to be an inmate who was heating up some sausage in a toilet in his cell. The story does not explain how he was doing this, but the unnamed prisoner was placed in segregation pending a discipline hearing.

Mythbusters 'Big Bang' Shocks Town

The crew from the TV show Mythbusters went to a rock quarry in Esparto, California to answer the question, "Can you really knock someone's socks off?" They ignited 500 pounds of ammonium nitrate, causing a bigger explosion than they expected. The shock wave was felt all over town, and several windows were broken. The taping had been a secret to keep bystanders safely away, so townspeople did not initially know what caused the explosion. Mythbusters replaced the broken windows.

Serial Killer Mystery Solved

Hundreds of detectives in Germany spent two years trying to track down a mysterious female serial killer whose DNA was collected at 39 different crime scenes. When they didn't make any progress in the case, police offered a 300,000 euro reward for information on the killer. An internal investigation found that the DNA didn't belong to a criminal at all, but to a careless factory worker who made the swabs used to collect evidence!

Dinnerware Made of Cocaine Seized

150cocainedishes.jpgSpanish police seized a 42-piece dinnerware set from a 35-year-old man who received the delivery. The blue plates, cups, and bowls decorated with sunflowers turned out to be made from 45 pounds of cocaine! The  tableware was sent by recorded delivery from Venezuela to Barcelona via London. The Spanish man, identified only as JVLL, is believe to have been forced into service by Venezuelan drug lords, who hoped to sell the cocaine in Catalonia.

60-foot Penis Painted on Roof

18-year-old Rory McInnes of Hungerford, England watched a documentary on Google Earth and became inspired to paint the outline of a penis on the roof of his parent's £1million house. A year later, a helicopter saw the painting and took photographs.

His father Andy McInnes at first dismissed the report as a joke.

He told The Sun: 'It's an April Fool's joke, right? There's no way there's a 60ft phallus on top of my house.'

But after ringing around each of his four children, Rory owned up to the painting, reportedly saying: 'Oh, you've found it then!'

Rory was a safe distance away at the time of he discovery, spending his gap year in Brazil.

Double A-bomb Survivor

125nagasaki.jpgTsutomu Yamaguchi was on a business trip to Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945 when the US dropped the first atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns and stayed overnight before going home -to Nagasaki. Now 93 years old, Yamaguchi has been certified as the only person to survive both atomic bombs. Certified survivors are eligible for government compensation and medical care, but Mr. Yamaguchi's benefits will not increase due to the double certification.

It's Only a Heart Attack

Surgeon Claudio Vitale was performing a delicate operation to remove a brain tumor in Naples, Italy when he began having chest pains. His colleagues urged him to stop the procedure, but the 59-year-old doctor insisted on finishing because otherwise, the patient might have died.

"I couldn't leave the patient at such a delicate moment," he later told La Repubblica newspaper. "I'm not a hero, I was only doing my duty."

When the surgery was over, Vitale underwent tests that confirmed he had experienced a heart attack, and he was immediately sent to surgery himself for angioplasty. Both Dr. Vitale and the brain surgery patient are recovering.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

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]

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