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The Weird Week in Review

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Man in  La-Z-Boy Charged with Drunk Driving

61-year-old Dennis LeRoy Anderson of Proctor, Minnesota pleaded guilty to leaving a bar and crashing his vehicle. The vehicle was a converted La-Z-Boy recliner with a lawn mower engine, decked out with cup holders and a stereo, which he drove into another vehicle in the parking lot. Anderson's blood-alcohol level was measured at .29 percent at the time of the crash. Anderson's lisence had been revoked due to an earlier drunk driving charge. The La-Z-Boy was impounded and is scheduled to to sold at auction.

Cat in a Freezer for 19 Hours

A cat named Krillen survived 19 hours in a freezer in Te Kuiti, New Zealand. Sarah Crombie heard a faint meow when she approached the freezer, which hadn't been used since her partner Sid Sisson shut it the night before. He didn't realize that Krillen had jumped inside. The freezer was set to -18C, the coldest possible setting. Krillen attempted to jump out but was so cold he just rolled over into the bottom of the chest freezer. Sisson put the cold kitty under his shirt and climbed into bed. It took three hours under the covers for the cat to stop shaking. Krillen appears to have recovered without frostbite.

Coyote Struck, Travels to California

Daniel East and his sister, Tevyn were traveling on Interstate 80 near the Utah-Nevada border when a coyote ran in front of the car. They hit the animal, but kept driving as they assumed it was dead. Eight to ten hours later, they stopped in California and noticed the coyote was stuck in the car's grill! They called the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Release office in Penn Valley, which sent a volunteer.

Jan Crowell, a rehabilitation center volunteer, said she brought a catch pole, an animal carrier, gloves and blankets.

When she arrived, East and his sister were taking the screws out of the car's grill in an effort to get the animal out. Once the grill was pulled forward, the coyote poked its head out.

"No broken bones, no internal injuries -- nothing," Daniel East said, adding that the animal only had a few scrapes on one of his paws.

The coyote was kept at the center until it escaped on its own.

Leech Convicts Australian Robber

150leechPolice found a leech at the scene of a robbery in Tasmania eight years ago. They took a sample of the blood the leech had consumed and kept it for evidence. In 2008, Peter Alec Cannon was arrested on an unrelated drug charge. The DNA from his blood matched the blood from the leech! Cannon would have gotten away with the crime if he had not been arrested for the later crime and voluntarily given a DNA sample. A police spokesman said this kind of case validates the use of DNA technology for crime fighting.

XXXXXXX Vanity Plate Spells Trouble

Scottie Roberson went by the name Racer X when he built custom cars in Alabama. So when he got license plates for his everyday car, he bought vanity plates with seven Xs. That led to $19,000 in traffic tickets. It turns out that when Birmingham police ticket a car that has no license plates, they enter seven Xs for the plate number. The tickets have been racking up for Roberson for over a year. A city spokeswoman said officials are aware of the problem, and that Roberson will not be charged. She also said police are looking into changing the system to keep him from receiving more tickets.

Car Thief is a Real Bear

150_bearcarA couple on the outskirts of Florissant, Colorado hard their car alarm go off and called police, after seeing someone moving in the car. Sheriff's deputies instead found a bear in the car! The animal had opened the car door, but once inside, the door shut and it couldn't get out. When officers opened the vehicle door, the bear left in a hurry. There was extensive damage to the car's interior. Mikel Baker of the local sheriff's office said that bears are very hungry in the fall as they prepare for hibernation and will enter any vehicle that smells of food.

Moscow Mayor Promises No Snow

Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, has hatched a plan to keep the city snow-free this winter. Usually snow is a problem from November to March. Luzhkov proposes to pay the Russian Air Force to seed clouds before they bring snowstorms to Moscow. That plan is used already to keep rain away from Victory Day and City Day celebrations. The cost of the scheme will be around $6 million, but that's half of what the city usually pays to clear snow from the streets in winter. The Moscow City Council has already approved the idea.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]

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