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The Weird Week in Review

Cold Man Gets Into Bed With Stranger

An unidentified man in South Washington, Pennsylvania felt someone get into bed with him Wednesday morning. He assumed it was his girlfriend, but when he called her name, a male voice replied, "No it's not." The man jumped out of bed and grabbed a baseball bat while calling 911. Police came and arrested 33-year-old Michael Karanja Kamau. There were indications that Kamau had forced his way into the apartment. Kamau told police that he went inside the apartment because he was cold.

Man Wins Millions the Day After Divorce

The divorce case of Kevin Halstead Chorley, Lancashire, England was finalized on Friday. On Saturday, he bought a lottery ticket that paid off more than £2 million! If the divorce had taken any longer, he would be obliged to share half with his wife. However, Chorley and his new partner, along with another person who shared in the ticket, will be able to keep the money. Chorley's former wife is not bothered by the turn of events.

Ex-wife Helen said: "We are the best of friends. In fact, we get on better now than when we were married.

"It couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke. I wish him all the luck in the world - he deserves it."

Celebrating a Clean Drug Test Leads to Overdose

Michael Edwin Berg of Plant City, Florida underwent a court-ordered drug screening last September and passed as clean. He wanted to celebrate, so he and friends began the party at Berg's home, then to a bar where he obtained a bottle of morphine. The party moved to another home, where the 23-year-old Berg took the morphine and they all passed out around 3AM. Around 4:30 PM, friends called paramedics, who found him dead. Berg's friend, 23-year-old Daniel Aleman, was arrested this week on charges of third-degree murder and delivery of morphine in the case.

Hacker Remotely Disables Over 100 Cars

A car dealership in Austin, Texas installs a device in cars that allows them to disable the vehicle, or make the horn blow, if a customer is overdue on car payments. The system was hacked last month and over 100 drivers found their cars would not start. Some had to disconnect the battery to stop the horn from blowing. Police arrested 20-year-old Omar Ramos-Lopez in connection with the prank. The company had recently terminated Ramos-Lopez' employment, and investigators say he got into the system using another employee's account. He was charged with computer intrusion.

Boy Left Behind at His Birthday Party

An unnamed boy in Warren, Michigan celebrated his third birthday Saturday with a party at pizza restaurant Caesarland. Then his parents left separately without him. The manager noticed the child at about 9PM and called police. The boy was placed in foster care. Both parents say they thought the boy was either with the other parent or with his grandmother. They realized he was missing on Sunday, but did not call police. It was Monday before they called the restaurant to ask about the child! Macomb County Prosecutor's plans to file neglect and abandonment charges.

Surfing Alpaca

Surfing instructor Domingo Pianezzi of Lima, Peru, has has accomplished something no one else on record has done -he taught an alpaca to surf! His alpaca named Pisco wears a life jacket while surfing with Pianezzi, as alpacas are not natural swimmers.

The surfing teacher said: "I've surfed with a dog, a parrot, a hamster and a cat, but when I was at a competition in Australia I saw people surfing with kangaroos and koalas.

Pisco is seen on video hanging, er, hooves.

Premature Report of Death -Twice

77-year-old Theresa Fraser of Garden of Eden, Nova Scotia found her pension check had not been deposited in December. With a few phone calls, she found the Canadian government thought she had died when another woman with the same name passed away. Someone didn't check the social security numbers. Fraser thought the matter was resolved when her check arrived in January. Then last week, Fraser received a letter from Canada Revenue asking for the return of the money they sent in January! The letter was addressed to "the estate of the late Theresa Fraser" with her proper social security number. Fraser again called the revenue office to straighten the matter out, but she is afraid it may happen yet again.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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