The Weird Week in Review

Woman Falls, Rips Picasso Painting

A large painting by Pablo Picasso called "The Actor" hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A woman who was attending an art class on Friday fell into the painting and caused a six-inch tear. The museum did not name the woman, and said that the damage occurred in the lower right corner of the painting. The tear will be repaired in time for a major Picasso retrospective opening at the museum on April 27th.

A Movie Made by Chimpanzees

Betsy Herrelko is working on a PhD in primate behavior. She gave specially-designed video cameras to a group of chimpanzees at the Edinburgh Zoo. The chimps were given lessons in how to use the equipment. The experiment took place over an 18-month period, and selected video clips were used to create a show called "Chimpcam" which was aired Wednesday on the BBC program Natural World.

The apes are unlikely to have actively tried to film any particular subject, or understand that by carrying Chimpcam around, they were making a film.

However, the result, as well as providing new information on how chimps like to see the world, may yet go down in television history.

US Planning to Relax Haggis Ban

Haggis fans in the United States may soon have their favorite dish available directly from Scotland. The US banned the import of certain British meats in 1989 amid fears of BSE, also known as Mad Cow Disease. The Department of Agriculture is now ready to relax those rules. Haggis was banned because it contains "offal ingredients such as sheep lungs." Haggis manufacturers in Scotland are encouraged by the news, as they will be able to sell the dish for US tourists to take home and ship haggis to Scottish expatriates in America.

Man Superglues Phone to his Ear

It was an accident. Gye Gardner of the Northern Territory of Australia keeps his phone headset in his ear all day. Recently the truck driver hit his head against the boom of his truck and broke the earpiece. Gardner repaired it with superglue. Then his boss called him. Without thinking, Gardener put the piece in his ear to answer the call and drove about five minutes before he realized what he had done. The glue had dried, and the headset was firmly glued to his ear. Gardner considered using his knife to remove the phone, but for safety reasons, used a spoon. Some skin still came off along with the earpiece.

Dog Rescued 18 Miles from Land

A dog that came to be known as Baltic floated for 70 miles on a raft of ice before he was rescued by the crew of a Polish research vessel. He first became trapped in the Vistula river near the town of Torun, Poland on Friday. He was later seen 40 miles away in Grudziadz, where a rescue attempt was thwarted due to ice. Another 22 miles downriver, another rescue attempt failed. After that, he was thought to be dead. Baltic was finally hauled aboard the science vessel Baltica 18 miles out in the Baltic Sea on Monday. The crew first thought they spied a seal, but were surprised to see legs. Captain Jan Jachim says if no one claims the dog, Baltic will become the ship's mascot.

Fired Over a Slice of Cheese

An employee of McDonalds in the Netherlands was fired last year for adding a slice of cheese to a hamburger. A co-worker had purchased a hamburger, then asked for cheese. The woman added the cheese without re-ringing the order and charging him the higher price for a cheeseburger. The company fired the unnamed woman in the town of Lemmer for breaking the rule against giving free food to family, friends, or co-workers. Last week, a Leeuwarden district court awarded the woman thousands of euros, saying her dismissal was too severe, and that a written warning would have been more appropriate.

Animal Menagerie Seized

Barbara Hoffman and Fred Lulling of Jefferson, Texas were arrested on charges of animal cruelty when the Marion County's Sheriff's Office seized over 50 animals from their home. Taken from the home were six tigers, one cougar, two panthers, one leopard, six goats, a sugar glider, six doves, three guinea pigs, parrots, pigeons, a wallaby, turtles, tarantulas, a coatimundi, iguanas, four boa constrictors, mice, one raccoon, one monkey, chickens, geese, one turkey, miniature horses and ponies, and dozens of dogs and cats. The animals had been kept in cages in several trailers on the property.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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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]