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The Weird Week in Review

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Alfie the Canine Arsonist

A hungry dog in Llanfairfechan, Wales set fire to a home and caused £6,000 in damage. Paul Gregson, his wife, and two sons escaped the burning house just after midnight Tuesday. Alfie apparently was looking for something to eat when he jumped on the stove and turned on a burner. A chip fryer on top heated up and started the fire. Smoke alarms woke the family up and they were able to evacuate the home. Three-year-old Alfie is a flat-coated retriever, a breed Gregson says is "slow to mature".

Thief Takes Van with Lion Inside

A thief in Wuppertal, Germany made off with a Mercedes Transporter owned by Circus Probst, apparently unaware that a lion was in the back. The van was recovered Wednesday morning with Caesar still inside. It is not yet known whether the presence of the lion led to vehicle being crashed and abandoned. It was found with the motor still running. Police who had the van towed away were also unaware of the lion in the back. Caesar was finally returned to the circus about twelve hours after the theft, and is reported to be fine.

25 Middle-school Students Arrested in Food Fight

A food fight broke out last Thursday at the Calumet middle school campus of Perspectives Charter Schools in Chicago. A campus police officer called for backup and Chicago police responded. By the end of the day, 25 students aged 11 to 15 were arrested and taken to jail for reckless conduct. The students were released to their parents and suspended from school for two days. Parents are questioning the decision to arrest the children. Erica Russell, the mother of two girls who were arrested, said:

"I was all for some other kind of punishment, but not jail. Who hasn't had a food fight?"

Shark Gives Shark Caesarean Section

150_SharkA shark at Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World in New Zealand was carrying four baby sharks when she was bitten into by another shark. The young were released into the water from the hole in her abdomen. Staff at the aquarium had no idea the shark was pregnant, and said the attack probably saved the baby sharks' lives. If they had been born naturally in the same tank, stingrays and other adult sharks would have most likely eaten the babies. In this case, the newborns were quickly captured and isolated. They will eventually be released into the wild. The mother shark survived the incident.

Burglar Falls Asleep While Picking Lock

An unnamed 35-year-old man was found sound asleep at the entrance to a shopping center in Perth, Australia. He had a lock-breaking wire in his hand. Keys found on the man fit a nearby car that contained drugs stolen from a pharmacy. Samuel Dinnison of the Perth police department said he apparently fell asleep while picking the lock.

"He obviously had a long night, whatever he was doing, and that got the better of him," Dinnison said.

Grizzly Bear Eats Airplane

pipercubAn unnamed Alaskan bush pilot went on a fishing trip and neglected to wash down his plane afterward. The 1958 Piper Cub was just too much temptation for a passing grizzly bear to bear. The bear tore apart the wood-and-fabric plane looking for the fish he smelled, to the point of chewing on the tires! When the pilot returned to find the plane in tatters, he radioed for supplies to repair the plane: duct tape, cellophane, and two tires. He wrapped the plane in duct tape and flew home. The story includes a picture of the plane after repair.

Wedding Ring Found in Ten Tons of Trash

Bridget Pericolo put her wedding ring in a disposable cup, which no one should ever do. Her husband Angelo threw the cup in the trash. By the time the couple realized their mistake, the trash had been picked up by the Parsippany, New Jersey sanitation crew. The Pericolos, who have been married for 55 years, contacted the supervisor, who told them to go to the dump. Three sanitation workers sifted through garbage estimated to weigh about ten tons until they found the Pericolo's trash bag, with the ring inside.

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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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