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The Weird Week in Review

Water Lowered for Farting Turtles

The staff at the Great Yarmouth Sea Life Centre in Norfolk, England learned their lesson last year, when farting turtles set off overflow alarms at another aquarium. The turtles get a Christmas treat of Brussels sprouts, which cause gas in turtles as they do in humans. When feeding sprouts to the turtles this year, the Norfolk aquarium has emptied out thousands of liters and lowered the water level to keep the expected bubbles from splashing water and setting off sensors.

Displays Supervisor Christine Pitcher said: ''Last time an aquariist had to dash to the centre in the middle of the night, so we're not going to take any chances.

''Sprouts are really healthy for green turtles.

''The high levels of calcium in them are great for their shells, the fibre is good for their digestion and they also contain lots of beneficial Vitamin C, sulphur and potassium.''

"Best Job in the World" Still No Picnic

Remember how envious you were of the lucky person who got the best job in the world? Ben Southall, who beat 35,000 job applicants to live in a luxury island home and blog about the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia was stung this week by an Irukandji jellyfish. The venomous jelly is tiny, but its sting can cause shooting pains, vomiting, and (in rare cases) death. Southall was taken to a hospital where he spent the night, but recovered enough to enjoy the final week of his six month assignment.

Police Impound Driverless Car

Police at a checkpoint in Chistchurch, New Zealand were astonished when a car approached them with no one at the wheel! The car stopped, however, and the story was sorted out. The driver had apparently jumped into the backseat when he saw the police. The female passenger then struggled to control the wheel. The "backseat driver" tested positive for alcohol and was arrested. As police were in the process of impounding the car, they found another man in the trunk! He was just along for the ride, but narrowly escaped being impounded with the vehicle for 28 days.

Man Impaled With Knife Orders Coffee

An unnamed man walked into a diner in Detroit and ordered coffee, even though he had a 5-inch knife stuck in his chest. The 52-year-old man said he had been mugged, then walked about a mile trying to get help. He called emergency services from a pay phone, then went to the diner for coffee while he waited for the ambulance. Restaurant employees and customers couldn't believe how calm he was. The victim was taken to a hospital and is expected to recover completely.

Otters Cause Plane Delays

Continental flight 1294 was supposed to take off from Houston at 7:55PM, but was delayed due to otter chaos. A group of caged sea otters got loose in the cargo hold and were tearing their way into some luggage. Passengers saw the otters being taken off the plane in a box, but one otter escaped again and took off across the tarmac. Airline employees chased the otter for 45 minutes before capturing it once again. The plane finally took off at 9:15PM.

Man Charged with Being Drunk on a Mobility Scooter

A CCTV camera caught 37-year-old Nigel Lee Drummond operating his mobility scooter while intoxicated in Darlington, England. Police found his alcohol level was three times the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle. He was charged under an old law against "being drunk in charge of a carriage", since modern drunk driving laws do not apply to scooters. Drummond paid a fine and now helps the police's awareness campaign against using a mobility scooter while drunk.

China's Last Tiger Eaten?

There's no way of knowing whether the tiger that made a meal for five men was really the last Indochinese tiger in China, but no one has seen any others in years. Kang Wannian of Yunnan Province in China claims he killed the tiger in self-defense last February. Then he ate it.

A local court sentenced Kang to 10 years for killing a rare animal plus two years for illegal possession of firearms, the local web portal Yunnan.cn reported. Prosecutors said Kang did not need a gun to gather clams.

Four villagers who helped Kang dismember the tiger and ate its meat were also sentenced from three to four years for "covering up and concealing criminal gains", the report said.

The Indochinese tiger is on the brink of extinction, with only small populations left in Laos, Vietnam. Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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!

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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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