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The Weird Week in Review

Decorated Deer

You are used to seeing deer on lawns as Christmas decorations, but in Colorado Springs, you might see a real decorated deer! A TV news crew was there to capture video when a deer with Christmas lights tangled in its antlers roamed through a neighborhood. A neighbor tried to remove the lights, but couldn't get close enough before the deer ran away. Wildlife experts say the problem should resolve itself when the deer sheds the antlers.

Book 99 Years Overdue Returned to Library

75-year-old Stanley Dudek found a book entitled "Facts I Ought to Know about the Government of My Country" among his mother's possessions when she died in 1998. He didn't know it was a library book at the time. Last year, he noticed the book was due back on May 2, 1910. On Monday, he finally returned the book to the New Bedford Public Library in Massachusetts. The library waived the fine, which would be about $360 at the rate of one cent per day. The book, which was printed in 1894, was given to Dudek's mother in 1922 when she arrived in the US from her native Poland. The library has no records on who originally checked it out.

Drunk 4-Year-Old Steals Christmas Presents

Four-year-old Hayden Wright of Chattanooga, Tennessee was caught drinking beer and stealing Christmas presents from a neighbor's home in the middle of the night. His mother, April Wright woke up and found her son missing. Police found the child wandering the streets in a girl's dress taken from a neighbor's home and drinking a 12-ounce beer. Hayden had bypassed child safety devices on the doors and got the beer from his father's cooler. He then snuck into a neighbor's house and took Christmas presents, and rang the doorbell at another house. April Wright said he may have been looking for his father, or trying to get into trouble so he could be with his father, who is in jail. Hayden was taken to a hospital to be treated for alcohol consumption.

Cow Jumps Six Feet Onto Roof

A homeowner in Blagdon, Somerset, England called police to report damage to his roof. He suspected burglars, but later found it was a cow! Police asked neighbors if they knew anything about the incident, and 17-year-old William de Cothi showed them a photograph he had taken of a cow on the roof. The student had seen the cow on the roof and took a picture because it was so unbelievable. The animal had to jump about six feet to get onto the roof.

Woman Teaches Fox Sign Language

Beth Tyler-King of Hartland, Devon, England has taken in a deaf fox and taught it sign language. Milly the fox was injured when she was picked up by animal control 18 months ago, and found to be completely deaf. Tyler-king, who is also deaf, keeps Milly indoors most of the time as the fox was traumatized by earlier abuse. Milly has learned quite a few hand signals. Tyler King also has other injured animals she cares for.

"˜At the moment, I have got 30 hedgehogs, five owls, seven dogs, 14 cats, five pigeons, a dove, a parrot, and a squirrel.' She also has 12 hens and two ponies.

Food Fight Sends Germans to Hospital

A 74-year-old man and a 35-year-old woman got into an argument over a shopping cart at a supermarket in Aachen, Germany on Saturday. The woman's mother and brother joined in the fray and took the cart, but the elderly man caught up with them and began beating the brother with a salami. The mother grabbed a four-pound hunk of Parmesan cheese and defended her family. Police were summoned, and two of the group were taken to a hospital with minor injuries. The shopping cart was undamaged.

Man Strangles Rabid Bobcat with his Bare Hands

61-year-old James Gruver of Yavapai County, Arizona was attacked by a bobcat. He was looking underneath a trailer on his property when the cat lunged at him, knocking the man down. Gruver kept his wits about him and grabbed the bobcat by the neck and strangled him.

"I just kept a death grip on it because I realized when I was down on the ground, this is getting real serious," he says.

Gruver avoided being bitten, but sustained a few scratches. Arizona has seen a record 244 cases of rabies in animals this year.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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