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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
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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