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The Weird Week in Review

Skeleton Replaces Copenhagen Mermaid

Denmark's iconic statue of Hans Christian Anderson's The Little Mermaid normally sits in the Copenhagen Harbor, but left last week for temporary residence at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. On April Fool's Day, she returned -as a skeleton! The display was made from human bones and a swordfish skeleton. Tourists enjoyed the prank as the fake posed in the harbor for a few hours, then was removed to the museum for display the next several days.

Despite Gunman, Pizza is Delivered

Burkina Faso native Assami Semde was delivering two pizzas in the Harlem area of New York City when he was accosted by two hooded teenagers. One drew a gun and demanded the pizzas. Semde put the pizzas down and punched the gunman, who ran off. Then he grabbed and held the other man until police arrived. Then he finished delivering the pizzas, still hot, before he went to file a police report.

Semde's boss, Frank Grecco — a retired NYPD detective with 22 years on the force — called the teen "very courageous" but added, "I told him, "˜Next time, leave the pizza!'

Starry Night in Cereal

Doyle Geddes, a teacher at Sky View High School in Smithfield, Utah, led 150 students through the construction of the world's largest recreation of Van Gogh's masterpiece Starry Night. The finished product was 72 feet by 90 feet on the gym floor, and an inch deep in breakfast cereal! A Malt-O-Meal factory donated two tons of Tootie Fruities, Cocoa Dyno-Bites and Frosted Mini Spooners for the project. The work was displayed to the public for four hours on Saturday, then the cereal was collected and given to a farmer to feed his pigs. The Herald Journal details the process of making the recreation.

Women Arrested Trying to Smuggle Body Onto Plane

Gitta Jarant and her daughter Anke Anusic took Jarant's husband, 91-year-old Curt Willi Jarant to Liverpool John Lennon airport to board a flight to Berlin. The tickets had been booked weeks earlier. They had even arranged help to get the disabled man's wheelchair on board. Airport staff noticed that he was cold and called medical help. Jarant wasn't just cold; he was dead. The two women insisted that Jarant was only sleeping and that he always slept like that. According to an airport employee, when informed of Jarant's condition, the women asked if they could travel without him. Mrs. Jarant and her daughter were arrested an a charge of failing to report a death. The coroner is awaiting a report to determine how long Jarant had been dead.

Cow Trapped for Days Below Street

A cow apparently squeezed itself into a culvert in Kaysville, Utah and wandered through the town's storm drain system. It became stuck where the drain narrowed. Animal Control officers officers were alerted when a couple heard noises and found a full-grown cow in a street drain. They tried in vain to chase the cow out the way she came in. Finally crews had to dig up part of the street, and a tractor was used to pulled the cow out. Officers said the cow was underground for at least five days. She was returned to her owner with bruises and scratches.

Doctors Perform C-Section, Woman Not Pregnant

An unidentified woman came to the Cape Fear Medical Center in Fayetteville, North Carolina and asked for a Caesarian section in 2008. A resident diagnosed the woman as pregnant and admitted her to the hospital. After two days of trying to induce labor, she was taken for a C-section. Only during surgery did doctors find that there was no baby! The woman had a false pregnancy. Last week, the North Carolina Medical Board issued the lowest level of disciplinary action against the on-call doctor and the doctor who performed the surgery, stating that they failed to confirm the pregnancy, which the resident was unqualified to diagnose.

Swan Parade

Every Easter in Stratford, Ontario you can see the swans returning to the Avon River in style. They move out of their winter quarters in a fenced area and are escorted to the water by a parade of bagpipers. The Stratford Police Services pipe band wore kilts and marched to the river while playing music. The swans waddled behind, accompanied by a throng of townspeople and tourists who came to witness the event. The event was captured on video.

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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
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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