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The Weird Week in Review

International Banana Club Museum to be Sold

Ken Bannister, founder of the International Banana Club Museum, is selling out. The price of the museum has dropped from $45,00 to only $15,000! Before you snap up that bargain, be aware that the museum includes only the banana artifacts but no real estate, as the museum has been housed in rented space. Now the exhibit center is pulling out of the rental agreement and Bannister doesn't want to put the museum's contents in storage. The Banana Museum is the world's largest collection devoted to any one fruit, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Bids can be submitted to eBay.

Germany's Unluckiest Olympian

Is it luck or a curse that causes German speed skater Daniela Anschutz-Thoms to finish in fourth place? Not once, not twice, but fifteen times in the Olympics, the World Championships, and the European Championships. At each competition, medals are awarded to the top three only. It happened again in Vancouver.

Right up until the last lap, Germany's unluckiest Olympian looked set to break the mold and grab silver in the women's 3000 metre speed skating race.

But eventually the 35-year-old fell short, losing out on third place by just three hundredths of a second.

No matter how hard poor old Daniela tries, she just can't escape fourth place.

Anschutz-Thoms will have one more chance at a medal, in the 5,000 meter race next week.

Shoe Thief Targeted Funerals

A 59-year-old man named Park was arrested in Seoul, South Korea for stealing hundreds of pairs of shoes. He would attend funerals and wait for mourners to remove their shoes before entering the building, as is customary. Then he would pick out a expensive pair, put them on, and leave his own cheaper shoes behind. When police raided the warehouse at Park's second-hand shoe business, they uncovered 1200 pairs of shoes that may have been stolen. Now the shoes are laid out on display, and victims have been asked to come and collect the shoes that were stolen from them.

Czech Doctors Left 12" Tool in Patient

66-year-old Zdenka Kopeckova underwent surgery in September at a clinic in Ivancice, Czech Republic. She complained of constant pain since the operation. Only in February did doctors realize her surgical team had left a foot-long medical tool that resembles a spatula inside her abdomen! Four clinic employees have been fired over the incident. Clinic supervisors have apologized and offered compensation to Kopeckova, who plans to sue.

Gordon Lightfoot's Status Upgraded to Not Dead

71-year-old Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot was at his dentist's office when he heard the news that he had passed away. The report was broadcast on the Toronto radio station CP24 Thursday. Lightfoot called in a correction.

"I'm fine, everything is good. I don't know where it comes from. It seems like a bit of a hoax or something," the 71-year-old singer said. "I was quite surprised to hear [it] myself.

"I haven't had so much airplay on my music now for weeks."

The initial report is thought to have been a prank which turned into rumor which made its way to Canwest news websites.

Not Dead Enough for a Funeral

A funeral home in Cali, Colombia was preparing the body of a 45-year-old woman for embalming when she began to move and breathe. She had been declared dead the day before by hospital staff when monitors registered no heartbeat and no blood pressure. The unnamed woman was transferred back to the hospital, where she is in a coma.

Stranded Snowboarder Burned Money to Stay Warm

22-year-old Dominik Podolsky of Munich, Germany was trapped 33 feet above the ground on a ski lift in Austria when operators shut it down for the night. He didn't have his phone with him, and decided not to jump. Instead, he began burning his money to ward off hypothermia. A crew on the ground spotted the fire as Podolsky was burning his last 20-euro note, six hours after he boarded the ski lift. He was taken to the hospital, treated for hypothermia, and released that same night. Podolsky is considering legal action against the ski lift company, but a spokesman said that no one was supposed to use the ski lift to ride down the mountain.

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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