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6 Really Strange Truck Spills

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When I first heard that a truck had dumped 40,000 pounds of sausage on Wisconsin highway, my first thought was, "Mmmmm, sausage." My second thought was, "That has to be the weirdest truck spill ever." But it's not. With help from friends at Truckspills.com, we found some truck spills you would definitely rather read about than encounter.

1. Molasses

Picture 10.pngIf any town might prepare for a sticky truck spill, you'd expect it to be Sugar Land, Texas. That's where, in 2008, motorists came face to face with a monstrous wave of . . . molasses. 5,000 gallons spilled when the truck carrying it jack-knifed and rolled over. The cleanup took eight hours and 8 trillion handy wipes.

2. A Whale

(Warning: Disgusting photo ahead!)

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The Taiwanese city of Tainan looked like the set of a slasher movie after a 56-foot sperm whale exploded on its way through town. At the time, the whale was dead, having beached itself earlier, and was being carted via flatbed truck to a research facility for autopsy. As the whale lay rotting in the sun, gases began to build up inside its carcass until they detonated in a flood of whale guts.

3. Beer

Last year, when a driver lost control of his rig on a Colorado interstate ramp, the capsized trailer was shorn open like a beer can . . . full of beer cans. That's right: this particular truck was carrying twelve-packs of smooth-drinking Keystone Light. Keystone markets itself as "Always Smooth, Even When You're Not"--like, say, when you take a ramp too fast and crash your tractor-trailer. Fortunately, the "uninjured" beer was recovered and loaded on another truck, leaving me to imagine that a poor beer-lover somewhere bought himself a very foamy twelve-pack.

4. Money

As tough as the economy is, maybe people should start combing the highways for loose change. In 2004, a wrecked armored truck spilled $2 million in coins on the New Jersey Turnpike. In 2005, an armored truck caught fire and splashed $800,000 in scalding quarters on an Alabama road. And just last year, a truck carrying 3.5 million nickels (worth about $185,000) to the Miami Federal Reserve dumped its load after a violent wreck that killed the driver.

5. A ship engine

Picture 121.pngWhat do you do when a 200-ton marine engine destined for a San Diego shipyard flips off its flatbed? Get a crane. Actually, get three cranes--and a new road. The massive engine pancaked cars and even shoved one below the pavement. True to Murphy's law, the truck driver involved went to the wrong address, realized his mistake, backed up, hit a curb, and—kaboom! For a cool description of how engineers put the engine back on a truck, check out the original article on the crash.

6. Explosives

Picture 131.pngIn 2005, a truck carrying 35,000 pounds of explosives rolled over on a Utah highway and (in classic "A-Team" fashion) blew up moments after the driver and passenger escaped. The blast dug a crater 30 feet deep and 70 feet across. It also propelled concrete road barriers hundreds of feet in the air and twisted nearby railroad tracks like straws. Fortunately, no one died.

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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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