CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Children Direct Air Traffic

An air traffic controller at New York City's JFK airport brought his two children to work with him on two consecutive days last month and allowed then to speak to pilots over an air traffic control frequency. A audio recording shows how the controller's young son spoke to an airborne Air Mexico pilot and cleared a Jet Blue pilot for takeoff. The unnamed controller brought his daughter to work the next day and allowed her to speak to air traffic as well. Both the controller and his immediate supervisor are on paid leave as the FAA investigates the incident.

Breast Implant Stops Bullet

Lydia Carranza survived a gunshot wound in her chest during a workplace shooting last year. Dr. Ashkan Ghavami, a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, credits her size D breast implants with stopping the bullet from entering her heart. The medical team that originally treated Carranza is not so sure.

"It's a ballistics issue," Kris Carraway, a spokeswoman for Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, told the Times. "The emergency physician who treated the patient was not aware of the breast implant having any impact or whether or not it saved her life."

An LAPD firearms instructor told the Times it's possible the implant interrupted the velocity of the bullet.

Dr. Ghavami has offered Carranza his services at a reduced price for reconstruction of her implants.

Wedding Elephant Destroys Limousines

An elephant hired for a wedding in New Delhi, India had romance on his mind as well. Instead of waiting to do his job, the elephant responded to the scent of a female in heat and trampled over twenty limousines and other vehicles, a sugar cane field, and a shopping mall. The elephant was brought down with a tranquilizer gun six hours later. It is estimated that the elephant caused £200,000 in damage.

Turtle Racing

Imagine a sport where you can finish a drink in the midst of a race of only a few feet! Turtle racing has become a trend in metropolitan bars like Bucky's Grill and Pub in Indianapolis, where the first turtle race was held last month. Raffle tickets are handed out to patrons, and a drawing determines who get to be an honorary jockey for each of the six turtles. However, the only person to actually handle the turtles is a licensed reptile handler.

ATF Seizes 30 Toy Guns

Brad Martin and his son Ben sell Airsoft BB guns at their store on Cornelius, Oregon. A recent shipment of 30 of the toy guns were intercepted and seized by ATF agents when they entered the country at Tacoma, Washington.

The Martins said they buy their stock from Taiwan because the merchandise is less expensive. But the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives seized a shipment of 30 in October. That shipment is worth around $12,000 and the ATF is promising to destroy the entire shipment.

Special Agent Kelvin Crenshaw said the toys can be easily retro-fitted into dangerous weapons.

Martin disputes that the guns can be converted.

Unlicensed Pilot Flew for 13 Years

Dutch police arrested a 41-year-old man in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 as he was about to take off from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport with 101 passengers. The unnamed man was employed as a pilot for Corendon Airlines of Turkey, but did not have a valid pilot's license! He was once licensed to fly small planes, but was never certified to fly commercial airliners. He said he had been flying for airlines for 13 years. Police in Amsterdam were notified of the pilot's status by Swedish authorities. He was charged with flying without a license and forgery.

Couple Arrested on Wedding Day

22-year-old Marissa Ann Putignano-Keene and 37-year-old Timothy Keene were married in Barnstable, Massachusetts. The wedding took an ugly turn when the couple ran into a former girlfriend of the groom. Literally ran into, as the new Mrs. Keene was driving and tried to run the unnamed woman and her son down in the parking lot of the Barnstable Town Hall. The groom was also in the vehicle. The bride was arrested for assault and battery, and the groom was arrested for disorderly conduct. The newlyweds spent their wedding night in jail. Separate cells, of course.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
arrow
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES