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The Weird Week in Review

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Fire Station Blaze Embarrasses Firefighters

Firefighters in Waipahu, Hawaii responded to an traffic accident, but were called back to the station -because it was on fire! Fire Capt. Terry Seelig said the firefighters were "chagrined".

"The fire's cause was attributed to unattended cooking," Seelig said. "We, like everybody else, need to be careful and attentive when cooking."

The fire caused approximately $25,000 in damage to the Waipahu fire station, mostly from smoke and heat in the kitchen, Seelig said.

The fire station kitchen, which was scheduled for a remodel, has been repaired.

Cows with Fewer Burps

Methane produced from a cow's four stomachs contributes to the amount of greenhouse gasses released. Scientists in Canada are battling this trend by breeding environmentally-friendly cows that produce 25% less methane in their burps. The research is focusing on a gene that controls digestion in cattle. In addition, research shows that using a higher-quality feed which doesn't ferment as long in the stomachs and growing cattle to market size faster will further reduce greenhouse gasses.

Monkey Urinates on Zambian President

Zambian president Rupiah Banda was speaking to journalists at a news conference Wednesday at his home when one of the many monkeys who consider the presidential grounds home relieved himself on the president from a tree overhead.

Banda softly shouted: "You (monkey) have urinated on my jacket," and paused as he looked up to see the animal playing in a tree just above his chair.

"Perhaps these are blessings," he said continuing his address amid laughter from the audience of journalists and diplomats at the State House presidential offices.

Belgian Woman Regrets Tattooed Stars

150facetat3Kimberley Vlaminck came home with 56 stars tattooed on her face. The reaction she got from her family make her think twice after the fact, so she announced she was suing the tattoo artist. The 18-year-old Belgian woman said she had asked for only three small stars, but fell asleep during the procedure. Vlaminck blamed the tattoo on language differences with the Romanian tattoo artist, Rouslan Toumaniantz. Toumaniantz denied the accusations, but offered to pay for half the cost of laser tattoo removal. After worldwide scrutiny, the teenager admitted that she had asked for the full 56 stars and had not fallen asleep. Toumaniantz has since withdrawn his settlement offer, and says he will require written consent for all future tattoos.

Death by Computer

A tragic story from Romania should remind everyone not to mix electricity and bathing. A 17-year-old girl had her laptop in the bathtub at her home in Brasov. Flavia Maria Boricea had been bathing and surfing for quite some time, and plugged the computer into the wall outlet after the battery ran out. Her hands were wet, and she was electrocuted instantly. The only mark left was a burn on her hand.

Stoned Wallabies Make Crop Circles

115_wallabyWallabies have been observed helping themselves to legally-grown opium poppies on the island of Tasmania. Tasmanian attorney general Lara Giddings presented a security report and said wallabies were getting high on the poppies and wandering around in circles, leaving visible circles in the crops. An industry spokesman said that sheep in the poppy fields are more common, but they exhibit the same behavior -walking around in circles after ingesting the poppy seeds. Sheep are more likely to return to their paddocks and walk in circles.

Jeff Goldblum is Not Dead

Amidst the news of the deaths of Michael Jackson and Farah Fawcett, a site that generates spoof stories produced an item that said actor Jeff Goldblum had fallen off a cliff and died in New Zealand while filming a movie. The story became an internet rumor which became breaking news for some Australian news outlets. Channel Nine went as far as broadcasting a video retrospective of Goldblum's work. For the record, Goldblum is alive and well.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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