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The Weird Week in Review

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Lost Man Drives 400 Miles to Get Newspaper

Eighty-one-year-old Eric Steward of Yass, New South Wales, Australia went out to get a morning paper on Wednesday. He took a wrong turn onto a highway and drove for nine hours before stopping to ask for directions! Steward ended up in Geelong, Victoria, 400 miles from home. A policeman called Steward's wife, and sent him in the right direction for home.

"I just went out on the road to have a drive, a nice peaceful drive," he told reporters, adding he did not need a satellite navigation device as he'd only been lost once.

The Hamster Hotel

The Hamster Hotel is now open in Nantes, France. No, it's not just a clever name. Frederic Tabary and Yann Falquerho converted a room in an old building to a human-sized hamster cage complete with a running wheel and hay to sleep on. Guests will live like a hamster, to the point of even having grain offered for meals. The price for the room is currently 99 euros for a night, but the price will go up when Wifi and a TV screen are installed.

Dad Spoke Only Klingon to Child for Three Years

Minnesota linguist d'Armond Speers has a doctorate in computational linguistics. He says he isn't much of a Star Trek fan. But he spent the first three years of his son's life speaking to him only in the Klingon language!

"I was interested in the question of whether my son, going through his first language acquisition process, would acquire it like any human language," Speers said. "He was definitely starting to learn it."

Speers helped develop a digital dictionary in Klingon for Mac, Windows, and iPhone for the software company Ultralingua. Speer's son is now 15 years old and doesn't speak a word of Klingon.

Trimming a Hedge with a Crane

120_craneTwo men in Cambridge, in the Waikato region of New Zealand have a different idea of how to trim an unruly hedge. They were spotted mowing the hedge with a riding lawnmower hoisted above the foliage by a crane! The two men, who wished to remain unnamed, joked that they might go into business with their unusual trimming method. After a scheduled hedge-trimming service didn't show up, they came up with the stunt in order to make a video and hoped it would be popular on the internet. The friends managed to get a crane and a lawnmower, but had no video camera. The mower operator broke a hand during the stunt in a fall from the crane. However, passers-found the sight quite entertaining.

North Pole Mail Program Dropped

The 2,100 citizens of North Pole, Alaska take Christmas very seriously. Since 1954, they've volunteered for Operation Santa, a program of the US Postal Service which answers letters to Santa Claus. The program has volunteers all over the country, and many letters are routed through Alaska to get the special North Pole postmark. However, the USPS is discontinuing the practice of sending letters to the town of North Pole. New security restrictions on letter-writer's identities are not feasible in the small Alaskan town. Children can still write letters to Santa Claus and get an answer, but they won't go to North Pole.

Lion Opens Car Door with Teeth

150lionopenLion Safari Park in Johannesburg, South Africa allows cars to drive through the lion enclosure so people can see the animals up close. A family in a white Toyota drove through with the doors closed, but apparently failed to lock at least one back door. A 300-pound lion deftly reached over and opened the back door with his teeth. The family remained still for several seconds, supposedly in shock, before driving off as quickly as possible. The lion chased the car to a gate, where a park attendant held it back by throwing stones. Richard Holden was in a car behind the Toyota took pictures of the incident.

Students Arrested for Not Paying Tip

College students Leslie Pope and John Wagner and four of their friends went to the Lehigh Pub in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The bill came to $73, which Pope and Wagner paid, but they refused to pay the mandatory $16.35 tip, because they said the service was lousy. So they were arrested.

The pub, which was very busy that night, took the $73, but then called the cops, who treated the matter as a theft.

The menu clearly states, "18 percent gratuity added to check of parties of 6 of more," and a similar message is printed on receipts, a pub employee said this morning.

The students will be in court over the matter next month.

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