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The Weird Week in Review

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Office Fridge Sends Seven to Hospital

An office worker in San Jose, California decided to clean out the workplace refrigerator on Tuesday. The old food was taken out and placed on a table. The smell of the rotting food, combined with disinfectants used to clean the refrigerator were no noxious that the building was evacuated and a hazmat team was called! 28 people were treated for nausea and vomiting. The worker who was doing the cleaning was unaware of the sickening fumes. She can't smell because of allergies.

Paragliding Police

Officers of the Palm Bay Police Department in Florida keep an eye on a large area by using motorized paragliders! The vehicles and training cost $10,000 per officer, which is cost-effective compared to using helicopters. And they have other benefits.
Chief Berger sees the gliders as an ideal tool for searching for missing elderly people who have wandered away.
"The problem with helicopters is you can't go below 1,000 feet," said Berger. "The canopy of trees in our community prevented the helicopter from seeing a woman who had [died] close to her car. The paragliders would have been able to get much lower."

Woman Defends Home with Bowl of Chili

When thieves broke into her home and demanded prescription medicine, 58-year-old Wanda Bray of Claiborne County, Tennessee used what she had to fight them with: a bowl of chili and some household objects. She threw the bowl of chili at the two men and chased them with a broom. The two men fled the home. Fabian Moore and Tommy Wayne Garrett were arrested later along with Samuel Partin, the alleged getaway driver. Moore and Garrett were later linked to an armed robbery at a convenience store in the area.

Snake Attacks from Toilet Bowl

100toilet.pngAn unidentified 51-year-old man in Taiwan got a nasty surprise when he sat on the toilet in his home near Taipei. A snake reached up and bit his penis. He is under medical care for a minor injury, and will be observed for possible infection. The snake has been tentatively identified as a rat snake.

"White African American" Suspended from Medical School

Paulo Serodio, a former student at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey says he is the victim of discrimination after he was suspended from school for "unbecoming conduct". The controversy stems from a class discussion in which Serodio described himself as a "white African American." Serodio was born in Mozambique and immigrated the the US. Some class members were offended that Serodio would describe himself as African American. According to Serodio, this incident led to harassment which included assault and damage to his car. The final straw was when the school suspended him.

Man vs Cat in The Great Race

midge.pngMartin Humphreys of Bradford, West Yorkshire, England has a one-eyed cat named Midge he adopted from a rescue center 12 years ago. For five years now, Midge has accompanied Humphreys on his daily run and hates to finish behind him. Humphreys won £1,000 in a workplace competition to make a short film about the racing cat.
The result, The Great Race, has been selected for the Short Film Corner at Cannes and Mr Humphreys, who wrote, directed and penned the theme song for the eight-minute production, is flying out to the French Riviera to show it to Hollywood executives. It is believed to be the lowest budget offering at the festival "“ the opening night film, Pixar animation Up, cost $150 million to make.

Man Learns of Wife's Affair via Porn DVD

A man in Taiwan identified only as Mr. Lee purchased a pornographic DVD in 2002. As he watched the scenes taken at a hotel, he recognized his own wife in bed with one of his friends! The video had been taken without their knowledge by a hidden camera. Lee divorced his wife. The friend left the village. In 2008, Lee spotted his former friend in 2008 and, apparently still angry, stabbed him in the leg. Lee was arrested on Tuesday for causing bodily harm.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”