CLOSE
Original image

The Weird Week in Review

Original image

Fake Cop Pulls Over Real Cop

21-year-old Antonio Fernandez Martinez of Oakland was impersonating a police officer when he tried to pull over a car driven by Jim Beere, who is an actual police officer in plainclothes working undercover. Fernandez was driving a car with flashing lights and loudspeakers. Martinez was promptly arrested. If convicted, Martinez faces more than a sentence for impersonating an officer -he will also have his probation revoked on an earlier charge of car theft.

Misspelled Highway Sign

A sign on Highway 51 in Wisconsin points to exit 185. There are four words on the sign, and three are misspelled. "Exit" was correctly spelled. The state Department of Transportation blamed a subcontractor, Decker Supply Company. The sign read "Buisness 51 Rothschield Schofeild." By Sunday morning, the sign had been replaced.

World's Oldest Potted Plant

It took three months of planning, a crane, and nine gardeners to transfer a palm tree called a cycad to a new pot. The operation at Kew Gardens in London was difficult and delicate because the tree is considered to be the oldest potted plant in the world. It was collected around 1770 during the Captain Cook's second voyage around the world, which would make it at least 235 years old. It has been growing in a pot at Kew Gardens in London for 160 years. The repotting procedure was successful.

Gnome Rescue Operation

150gnomesAn elderly resident of Cootamundra, New South Wales, Australia died and left behind around 1500 cement garden gnomes. Not knowing what to do with them, the executor of the will contacted the Australian Gnome Convention for advice on disposing of them. A four-member team traveled 800 kilometers to pack up the gnomes of all sizes.They will be painted and refurbished, and will appear at the 2010 Australian Gnome Convention on January 26th.

Cheese Sculpture Melts

Artist Sarah Kaufmann created a life-size sculpture of astronaut Neil Armstrong made out of Wisconsin cheddar cheese. It was to go on display this week at the Neil Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Unfortunately, the air conditioners at the museum are turned off every night to save energy, and the statue started melting and slid off of its base. Visitors were disappointed to see the statue was not on display, or at least most of it wasn't.

The Only Zebra in Gaza

150gazazebraAfter two years of economic blockade, the zoos in Gaza are suffering. Only one has a zebra, but there's something about the zebra that seems, um, un-zebralike.
*
"It's really a painted donkey," admitted Mahmud Berghat, the director of Marah, when asked about the creature. Making a fake zebra isn't easy—henna didn't work and wood paint was deemed inhumane, so they finally settled on human hair dye. "We cut its hair short and then painted the stripes," Berghat explained behind the closed door of his office.

Most zoo animals have to be smuggled in through tunnels, but a zebra was too expensive for the Marah zoo.

Doctorate on Ice

Diana Entwistle, a former champion ice dancer, is the first person in Britain to achieve a PhD in figure skating.

The ex-British Masters ice dance champ said: "There is so much science in figure skating and it's the difference between getting a gold medal and appearing lower down in the leadership table."

Diana, who is in her 20s and from Roxwell in Essex, still competes but now plans to become a coach.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES