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The Weird Week in Review

Escaping Prisoner Becomes Stuck

42-year-old Roberto Carrillo didn't want to be in jail for New Years Eve. He tried to escape the cell in Valle Hermoso, Mexico by squeezing through a gap he saw where the roof met a wall of bars, but there wasn't enough room. He became stuck hanging upside-down and had to be rescued by laughing guards.

A source at the jail told The Sun: 'If he'd had a brain, it could have been embarrassing.'

Dragging a Coke Machine Down the Road

Nicholas Nunley needed a little cash, so he did what anyone would do -he hooked a Coke machine to his car and drove off! Deputies from the McMinn County Sheriff's department in Riceville, Tennessee chased Nunley as sparks flew from the dragging machine Wednesday morning. The Coke machine eventually disconnected from the car, but Nunley drove on. He pulled over after a nearly five mile chase. Nunley was charged with theft and resisting arrest. The car chase was caught on video.

Missing Dog Turns Itself In

A lost dachshund in Bredstedt, Germany knew just where to go. The dog, named Druse vom Höllengrund had become lost while participating in a fox hunt on Saturday. Tuesday morning, she showed up at the municipal lost and found office just as they were opening for the day. A hunter who was in the building on other business recognized the dog. Druse was then quickly reunited with her owner.

Man Crashes Into Restaurant, Orders Breakfast

91-year-old Charles Pierce of Port Orange, Florida drove to the Biscuits 'N' Gravy restaurant Monday morning. While trying to park, he pressed the accelerator and crashed through the restaurant's window. Inside, he got out of the car, sat down nearby, and ordered breakfast. Pierce was not injured, but another person was treated for minor injuries. Pierce was cited for careless driving.

Shaving a Fly's Penis with a Laser

Male flies have penises covered with spines and hooks. To figure out what the purpose of those spines are, researchers Michal Polak and Arash Rashed of the University of Cincinnati removed the spines to see what would happen.

Their spines are too small to cut off by hand. So the duo used a laser instead, wielding the light with such surgical precision that they could cut off a third of each millimetre-long spine, or the entire structure.

They found that a partial shave did nothing, but the full treatment significantly reduced the odds of the males mating with females.

The conclusion is that the fly's penis hairs act as Velcro, to grasp the female long enough to inject sperm.

Peeping Tom Photographs Himself

Police in Cheshire, England are investigating the case of a man who installed a camera in a fitting room at the Asda department store. Finding him should be easy as he left crucial evidence behind. He did not make sure the camera was off while he installed it, so pictures of the peeping tom in the act of placing the device were found in the camera. A photograph was published, and anyone who recognizes the perpetrator is urged to call police.

Watch for Falling Iguanas

Unusually cold temperatures in southern Florida are causing a novel problem -falling iguanas. Iguanas are an invasive species in Florida due to pet owners abandoning the lizards. When the temperature falls below 40 degrees, they automatically begin to hibernate and fall out of the trees they live in. There has been at least one case of a man picking up what he thought were dead iguanas which revived in the warmth of his car and caused chaos for the driver.

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
iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
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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