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The Weird Week in Review

Bass Tournament Cheating Leads to Jail Time

Cheating in a fishing tournament is taken very seriously in Texas, especially when there are expensive prizes involved. Robby Rose of Garland, Texas, was caught padding his catch in a bass tournament when a one-pound lead weight was found in the small fish he caught. Since the prize in the tournament was a $55,000 bass boat, he was charged with attempted felony theft. Rose pleaded guilty this week and was sentenced to fifteen days in jail and five years probation -plus he was forced to give up his fishing license.

Roof Collapse Leads to Surprise Rabbit Litters

The Nyköping exhibition is the biggest rabbit show of the year in Sweden. 1,648 rabbits and their owners participated in the February event. Heavy snowfall led to a collapsed roof during the show, and many rabbit cages were damaged, allowing the prize breeding rabbits to roam free.

"They made new friends and they became a bit aroused by the incident. The builders told me it was a veritable circus in there," one rabbit breeder told public broadcaster SVT's local Sörmland affiliate.

With rabbits of all stripes and colours trapped in the wreckage the pairing frenzy has thrown up all manner of new combinations, as Dwarf Hotots nuzzled up to British Giants and Lionheads mounted Himalayans.

A couple of months later, between 50 and 70 of the rabbit owners found themselves with surprise litters of bunnies that don't necessarily resemble the mother rabbit.

Dead Man Elected Mayor of Tennessee Town

Carl Robin Geary has been dead for several weeks. The people of Tracy City, Tennesee knew that. But Geary still won the mayor's race in a non-partisan election held Tuesday. Geary ended up with 268 votes, and the incumbent Barbara Brock took 85 votes. Brock had been appointed mayor of Tracy City when the previous mayor died 16 months ago.

Fox Kits Rescued with Detergent

Three fox kits got their heads stuck in a drain grate in Plainfield, Connecticut. Neighborhood residents could hear their mother calling for them from out of sight. After firefighters were unable to cut the grate, Animal Control Officer Karen Stone tried lubricating the kits' heads with Vaseline, then corn oil, but had no luck. What finally did the trick was a dose of Dawn dishwashing detergent. The kits were freed and driven back to the area of their den, soapy but unharmed. Before they were removed from the grate, the Plainfield police snapped a priceless picture of the three kits.

Accident-prone Man in Recovery Again

58-year-old Mick Wilary of Stanley, Co. Durham, England is in the hospital with crushed legs, recovering from being run over by a piece of heavy equipment. It's only the latest in a long line of mishaps that has earned him his reputation as Britain's most accident-prone man.

It follows breaks to both ankles, after he fell over a potato, and cracking his head open by tripping over a cat.

He has also fallen out of a raised bucket of a JCB, and was left with a broken collar bone when the horse he was riding got spooked by a plastic bag.

In total the grandfather-of-two has racked up more than 30 injuries, including 15 broken bones.

This is only a partial list of injuries, as Wilary started having accidents as a child. As he recuperated, he remarked that it's a good thing he doesn't drive.

Banana Museum Saved

Ken Bannister, the owner of the International Banana Club Museum, was forced to put the entire museum inventory up for sale when he lost his rented space. For a while it looked as if the museum would be no more, but the collection has now been sold to Fred Garbutt and his mother, Virginia who plan to reopen the museum. They paid an undisclosed amount for the museum, which they will house next door to Garbutt's liquor store North Shore, California. Garbutt explained how he plans to expand the museum and promote it with a BMW (Banana Museum Wagon). The Banana Museum will reopen in 2011.

Suspect Tries to Gnaw Off Fingerprints

Marijuana possession should not be a valid reason for self-mutilation, but 21-year-old Keith Simmonds Jr. was also on probation for conspiracy to murder and did not want to be identified. The Middleton, New Jersey man was arrested along with a passenger Monday night when police found pot in his vehicle. He managed to escape from the police car and fled. When he was found on Monday, police say his fingers were bloodied by an attempt to remove his own fingerprints. Simmonds is being held on a variety of charges, including the theft of the handcuffs he was wearing as he escaped and tampering with evidence for trying to remove his fingerprints.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
Original image
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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