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The Weird Week in Review

Fat Cat Gets Stuck Under Bomb-detecting Machine

A security checkpoint at the Newark Airport had to be shut down temporarily Tuesday when a large cat ran underneath a bomb-detecting machine. The 25-pound cat travels in a carrier, but was removed so the carrier could be checked through security. The frightened feline squeezed into a four-inch space under the machine and could not be dislodged. Passengers in line were sent to another security line for 20 minutes, until a hydraulic lift was brought in to pick up the machine so the cat could be retrieved. The cat's owner and her daughter missed their flight, but were relieved that the cat was alright.

Pole Dancing as an Olympic Event?

Ania Przeplasko of the International Pole Dancing Fitness Association believes that pole dancing will one day be recognized as a legitimate sport. She hopes it will eventually be a part of the Olympics. British pole dancer K.T. Coates is pushing to make pole dancing a "test event" at the 2012 Olympics in London and possibly a regular event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Coats has a petition with 4,000 signatures so far. The campaign to put pole dancing on the Olympic schedule has some opponents within the pole fitness community, such as those who believe gymnasts will crowd out dancers, and those who feel Olympic status will destroy the sport's allure.

Inmate Left in Courthouse as it Closes for Holiday Weekend

57-year-old Calvin Jones of Vallejo, California was in court for a probation violation two weeks ago. A bailiff took Jones to a secured room used for client-attorney meetings on Thursday morning, and then forgot him. That evening, the courthouse shut down operations for a four-day Presidents Day weekend!

Jones was left in the room, without food, water or access to restroom facilities for more than 10 hours, until a janitor at the Tuolumne Street courthouse discovered his plight about 7:25 p.m. and notified the Sheriff's Office.

"Deputies responded within 30 minutes and got him out of there," Faulkner told The Reporter, admitting that the situation "could have been very bad" had Jones been left uncared for in the courthouse over the long weekend.

The incident is under investigation.

Convict Digs Out of Prison With a Spoon

An unnamed 35-year-old female inmate broke out of a prison in Breda, the Netherlands. She had been housed on prison grounds in a special building for inmates preparing for release. She had dug a tunnel with a spoon! The tunnel went from the kitchen of the house to a sidewalk outside. Police think she had an accomplice who loosened the sidewalk paving stones outside. The woman had only 22 months left on her murder sentence. She is still at large.

Man Bulldozes House Before Foreclosure

Terry Hoskins of Moscow, Ohio took drastic steps to prevent the bank from foreclosing on his home. He owes $160,000 on his $350,000 home. Hoskins has struggled with RiverHills Bank over his home mortgage for almost ten years. Hoskins said he had an offer of $170,000 for the home, but the bank turned it down. Rather than see his home repossessed, Hoskins used a bulldozer and smashed the house to the ground. The building that houses his carpet business is under an IRS lien, and is set to go on the auction block on March second. Hoskins says he might bulldoze that property as well.

Drug User Reports Bad Hash to Police

A man in Eslöv, Sweden went to the local police station to complain about the hashish he had been sold. The unnamed man believed it had been laced with LSD.

The 26-year-old cannabis connoisseur declared to surprised police officers in the provincial Skåne town of Eslöv that he was not satisfied with the quality of his stash and would like to lodge a complaint, local newspaper Skånskan reports.

The man told officers that his ganja had not delivered the desired effect, leaving him feeling decidedly ill-at-ease and in the midst of a nightmare scenario where his girlfriend resembled a dolphin.

The man said in ten years of hash use, he's never had such a reaction. However, he was reluctant to identify the dealer who provided the drug, so it is unlikely police can do anything about his complaint.

Hero Dog Protects Lost Girl

Three-year-old Victoria Bensch wandered away from her home in Cordes Lakes, Arizona last Thursday. She was missing in the nearby mountains overnight while the temperature dipped down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Fifteen hours later, she was spotted in a dry creek bad by a helicopter pilot. Victoria was accompanied by her dog, Blue. Rescuers believe Blue kept the child warm and safe from predators overnight. When they approached the girl, the dog was on alert until Victoria smiled, then he relaxed and let rescuers approach. Blue had no trouble boarding the helicopter with Victoria. The girl was taken to a hospital for frostbite treatment and was found to be healthy.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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!

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iStock
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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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iStock

Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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