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The Weird Week in Review

Man Steals Ambulance with Patient Inside

Police in Madison, Wisconsin say a drunken man got into an ambulance in the parking lot of a ski resort and drove off Monday night. Emergency personnel were in the back of the ambulance with a patient at the time! Police stopped the vehicle as the man was driving it around the parking lot. 24-year-old Nicholas Pontillo was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, driving while intoxicated, and vehicle theft. He also had two outstanding warrants.

Scottish Man Goes Home with Two Left Feet

76-year-old Patrick Morrison of Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland went to a hospital in Edinburgh to have his right foot amputated. A prosthetic foot was attached before he returned home. When his wife removed the bandages, she was surprised to find he now had two left feet!

Patrick reportedly said: "She just burst out laughing. I phoned the hospital and they cut off the bottom of the limb and replaced the foot."

The prosthetic expert at Astley Ainslie Hospital that fitted the foot to Morrison has been fired.

Millionaire Gives Away Fortune

Karl Rabeder of Telfs, Austria amassed a fortune of around £3 million after growing up in poverty. But his riches didn't make him happy. Now he is selling his properties and giving the money to charity. Rabeder is selling his luxury home in the Alps by a raffle, and his other house in Cruis through a real estate agent. The furnishings are being sold as well. The money will go to a microcredit charity he founded that lends small amounts of money to people in El Salvador, Honduras, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile for development and small businesses.

Turkey Vulture Hitches Ride in Helicopter

Paul Appleton was piloting a helicopter and taking pictures during the Super Bowl in Miami last week when a bird crashed through the windshield. The turkey vulture landed in Appleton's lap -and stayed there. The pilot decided it would not be safe to push the big bird out, so the buzzard rode for twenty miles sitting in Appleton's lap. When the helicopter landed, the bird flew out, stumbled around for a while, then flew off for good. The incident was captured on video.

Shackleton's Whisky Recovered

The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust is restoring the shack used by explorer Ernest Shackleton during his Antarctic expedition of 1907-1909. In 2006 they discovered two cases of whisky, but only recently have they been able to free those crates from the ice. Then they discovered another case of whisky and two crates of brandy! Although the crates and most of the contents must remain with the historical site, a sample of the whisky will be retrieved for the distiller. Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay, says they will analyze the whisky in hopes of recreating the recipe, which had been lost since Shackleton took the brand to Antarctica.

Lame Duck Teaches Disabled Boy to Walk

Becci Lomax of Plymouth, England encountered a baby duckling that was going to be put down because of a lame leg. She took the duck in and nursed it back to health. As Lomax gave the duck, now named Ming-Ming, a dose of physical therapy every day, her 4-year-old son Finlay, who was born with cerebral palsy, watched and learned.

"This is the most amazing thing because in doing physio on the duckling, the same as I do for my son, Finlay took his first three steps after watching me doing the physio with the duckling.

"I was brimming with pride.

"Finlay uses a frame at home but even that's increased. He said 'I walk like the duck Mummy'," says Becci.

Is this quack medicine? We'll see when she gets a bill.

How Do You Steal a Washing Machine?

A man in Fort Walton Beach, Florida was seen pushing a washing machine down the street. A sheriff's deputy pulled up and asked him what he was doing. The man said the washing machine had been discarded, along with two dryers. The owner of the machine had appliances outside, but had posted a sign saying they were not to be moved. Nathan Earl Roberts was arrested on burglary and theft charges. Next time, he will probably make an effort to read the sign.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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!

Original image
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
Original image
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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