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The Weird Week in Review

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Man Repairs Airbed, Blows Up Apartment

An unidentified 45-year-old man in Duesseldorf, Germany tried to fix a leaky airbed by patching it with tire repair solvent. He left the glue on overnight and tried to inflate the bed the next day. A spark from the electric air pump he was using ignited the glue and the resulting explosion blew his living room wall into the building's stairwell. The blast damaged furniture and walls. The apartment building was evacuated until a structural inspection could be carried out. The man suffered burns on his arms, and a three-year-old girl suffered first degree burns.

Superman Arrested, Batman Released

23-year-old street performer Maksim Katsnelson dresses as Surperman and entertains tourists in Times Square. On July 9th, New York City police approached him and asked for ID. Katsnelson had none, and the confrontation led to a scuffle which eventually involved seven police officers.  Katsnelson was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. Another street performer dressed as Batman was handcuffed for lack of identification, but was later released because he caused no problems for police. He was last seen leaving with someone dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Katsnelson, again dressed as Superman, was arrested a second time on Wednesday.

Huge Blob of Arctic Goo

A mysterious mass of black goo has been observed oozing through the Chukchi sea off the coast of Alaska. The blob was first observed neat Wainwright and moved toward Barrow, where samples were collected for testing.

Nobody knows for sure what the gunk is, but Petty Officer 1st Class Terry Hasenauer says the Coast Guard is sure what it is not.

"It's certainly biological," Hasenauer said. "It's definitely not an oil product of any kind. It has no characteristics of an oil, or a hazardous substance, for that matter.

"It's definitely, by the smell and the makeup of it, it's some sort of naturally occurring organic or otherwise marine organism."

Update: The blob is composed of algae.

Forked Dog

150forkdogA chihuahua named Smokey wandered around with a fork stuck deep in his head for three days! He was at a cookout in Kentucky when the barbecue fork flew off its handle and skewered Smokey's head. The dog ran off into the woods and was found three days later. Taken to an animal hospital, veterinarians removed the fork from Smokey's head in an operation that lasted about 30 seconds. He is expected to make a full recovery.

Bride's Bouquet Brings Down Plane

At a wedding in Suvereto, Italy, the plan was to have the bride's bouquet thrown from an microlight plane flying over the wedding party. A line of women were waiting for the bouquet below. The bouquet was tossed and was sucked into the plane's engine. The plane crashed into a hostel. The pilot was uninjured, but the passenger, who tossed the bouquet, was taken to a hospital in Pisa with multiple fractures.

20-foot "Harmless" Shark on Beach

150baskingsharkSurfers at Gilgo Beach on Long Island found 20-foot shark lying on the beach Tuesday. Spectators took pictures of the arresting sight, and began to wonder how many other sharks that size waited out in the waters. Marine biologist Tracy Marcus examined the estimated 2,000-pound fish and said there was nothing to worry about, as this specimen is a basking shark that eats plankton. It doesn't even have teeth. The Long Island shark will undergo an autopsy to determine the cause of death and then will be buried nearby.

42 Tons of Trash Removed

The home of John R. Mallgren of Mastic Beach, New York was condemned for unsafe conditions. Workers then removed 85,000 pounds of debris from the property, which required 10 garbage trucks! The city is sending the $8,742 bill to the owner of the property, John W. Mallgren, who is the occupant's father. He had tried to clean up the property before, but was threatened by his son.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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