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The Weird Week in Review

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Jesus Christ Dismissed from Jury Duty

A woman named Jesus Christ was called for jury duty in Birmingham, Alabama this week, but was dismissed for disruptive behavior. Her name was Dorothy Lola Killingworth before she legally changed it.

Court officials told The Birmingham News Tuesday that the 59-year-old was excused because she was disruptive and kept asking questions instead of answering them.

Efforts to reach Christ for comment were unsuccessful.

Elf Arrested Over Dynamite Threat

45-year-old William Caldwell was dressed as an elf when he was arrested at Southlake Mall in Morrow, Georgia. He wasn't working as an elf, but got in line to see Santa Claus. According to police, he told Santa that he had dynamite in his bag. Santa immediately summoned mall security. The shopping center was evacuated, but no explosives were found. Caldwell was arrested on several charges.

Toddler Locked Mom in Closet for Seven Hours

Karen Kilgour of Auckland, New Zealand, was the unintended victim of her 14-month-old son Harry in a game that went horribly wrong. She was tidying up clothing in the toddler's wardrobe when he playfully shut the door on her. The other closets in the home have magnetic locks, but not this one. Kilgour spent several hours trying to open the door, and then hours trying to keep Harry calm as she worried about him. She finally sang her son to sleep, and Kilgour's husband came home about 4:30PM -seven hours after Kilgour was shut in the closet. The family plans to get a handle put on the inside of the closet.

Prime Minister of Vanuatu Fired for Absences

150vanuatuEdward Natapei was the prime minister of Vanuatu until he lost his job as he was attending a meeting of government heads in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. His trip triggered a rule that says ministers lose their seat if they miss three consecutive legislative sessions without notifying the speaker. While Natapei was gone, an extraordinary session was held to debate the tiny island nation's budget. A new election for prime minister was called for by Maxime Carlot Korman, current speaker and former prime minister himself.

Pig Farts Spark Gas Scare

Residents of Axedale, Australia called authorities when they smelled what they believed to be a gas leak. Firefighters responded to the home and found a 120 kilogram pet pig, which they found to be the source of the gas.

"She got very excited when two trucks and 15 firies turned up and she squealed and farted and squealed and farted," said fire chief Peter Harkins.

"I haven't heard too many pigs fart but I would describe it as very full-on."

The pig's owners were embarrassed over the incident and refused to let the pig be photographed.

Denver Plans to Welcome Aliens

150CloseEncountersIn 2010, Denver voters will have a referendum on the city ballot to approve a new panel called the Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission. If approved, the seven-member commission will develop protocols for establishing diplomatic contact with extraterrestrials. The initiative is the brainchild of Jeff Peckman, who collected over 10,000 signatures to put the referendum on the ballot. Peckman was also behind a vote in 2003 which would have introduced municipal stress-reduction techniques in Denver. The voters rejected that proposal. Peckman says he has seen only one UFO, on the day that Michael Jackson died.

Pornography Study Fails to Find Control Group

Scientists at the University of Montreal designed a study to compare men who watch pornography with men who have never used it. However, the project ran into a roadblock when researchers could not find any men in their 20s who hadn't been exposed to x-rated images and video. In interviews with twenty male college students, researchers found the average age of their first exposure to porn was age ten. The study was not completely abandoned; it was merely redesigned to study men's pornography-using habits.

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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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