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The Weird Week in Review

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Lost Luggage

Dave Carroll of the band Sons of Maxwell who wrote the popular internet song United Breaks Guitars has become a spokesman of a sort for beleaguered airline passengers. Carroll flew United Airlines again on Sunday on his way to speak to a group of customer service executives. Then he spent an hour at the baggage claim because United lost his luggage! Carroll was told by a United employee that he had to stay in baggage claim, and a customs official told him he had to leave. The bag didn't show up until Wednesday. Carroll said United was the only airline he could fly from Saskatchewan to Colorado Springs. The luggage was returned to him on Wednesday.

The Silverware Swallower

A Dutch medical magazine asked its readers to send in their stories of strange medical cases. One respondent told the tale of Margaret Daalman, who came in to the hospital 30 years ago complaining of a stomach ache. An x-ray found 78 forks and spoons inside her! It wasn't the first time Daalman had been treated for her habit of eating cutlery. The photos and x-rays were not made public until now. Daalman went into therapy after the surgery and is said to be doing well today.

Murder Mystery Guests Fail to Spot Actual Crime

A church group staged a murder mystery dinner theater in Yeovil, England on Saturday night. They spent the evening looking for crime clues, but failed to notice that thieves had taken a large TV, laptop computer and the contents of a safe the night before. Elim Pentecostal Church was the victim of a break-in Friday that went unnoticed until Sunday, despite the crime-solving party. The crime was finally noticed by Reverend Howard Davenport, whose car had been vandalized at the church earlier in the week.

Revd Howard Davenport said: "In situations like this you have to laugh really!

"We were obviously disappointed that the church had been targeted twice in a week, but when I heard that it hadn't even been noticed I had to smile.

"You'd have thought that eight wannabe detectives might have noticed a real crime a few metres from them only hours earlier!"

10-foot Shark Nearly Bitten in Half by 20-foot Shark

A 10-foot Great White Shark had been hooked already by a baited drum line off the coast of Queensland, Australia when it was attacked and bitten by a much bigger fish. Based on the bite marks, the attacker is presumed to be a 20-foot long Great White shark. Swimmers were warned away from the area of Stradbroke Island.

One-legged Man Held After One Shoe Goes Missing

A clerk at a shoe store in Maldegem, Belgium discovered that a single shoe was missing on Monday. A suspect came immediately to mind -a one-legged man who had been in the shop. Police were alerted and quickly apprehended an amputee who fit the store employees' description. The shoe was recovered, and the suspect, a Russian asylum-seeker, was handed over to authorities.

Chihuahua Smuggled in Luggage

150chihuahuabagCustoms officials at the Dublin Airport at first thought the x-ray showed a toy dog in the suitcase, but they opened it up and out popped a live puppy! A Bulgarian man on a flight from Madrid was trying to smuggle the young chihuahua. Bring a chihuahua into Ireland is not illegal, but imported animals must have a health certificate and paperwork to travel internationally. The puppy was handed over to officials and was placed in quarantine. The man was not detained, but a file is being compiled on the case.

Cop Allegedly Pulls Gun At Haunted House

36-year Baltimore police sergeant Eric Janik took a tour of a staged haunted house with his 9-year-old daughter and three other people. At the end of the tour, Michael Morrison, who was working in character at the attraction, jumped out at Janik to scare him with a chainsaw, Michael Meyers-style. Janik allegedly drew his service revolver and pointed it at Morrison's chest. Morrison dropped the chainsaw, which had no chain. Janik later denied the incident, saying he pointed the gun at the ground. Witnesses say Janik had been drinking.

"Callers said he seemed to be very intoxicated. In fact, the people inside the House of Screams noted that. When he was being processed, two of the officers noticed his speech was slurred and there was a moderate odor of alcohol coming from his breath. He didn't seem to be taking this quite as seriously as he should have been," said Baltimore County police spokesman Bill Toohey.

Janik has been suspended from duty with pay while awaiting a hearing.

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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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