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The Weird Week in Review

Waffle House Worker has Wild Ride

Andrew Brian McKnight was standing outside the Murfreesboro, Tennessee Waffle House where he worked when three teenagers walked outside, followed by a waitress who said they hadn't paid for their order. McKnight approached the group. The three jumped in a car, and the driver started forward, bumping McKnight. He fell on the hood of the vehicle, which took off. While the car sped down the road, McKnight managed to call 911. 18-year-old Christopher Allen Miller drove for about five minutes at up to 60 mph with McKnight on the hood. Police arrested Miller, and turned his two juvenile passengers over to their parents. McKnight was not injured.

Survival Tip: Disrupt the Power Grid

Imagine you are stranded in the woods with no way to call for help. An unnamed man in Saskatchewan found himself in just such a position, but he figured out a plan that worked. He cut down some power line poles! Several hundred people in Wollaston Lake and Hatchet Lake Denesuline Nation lost electrical power for two days. But the power company found the lost traveler.

"He was found under his boat in a very distressed state, so essentially he was stranded for a number of days and just desperate for people to know where he was," SaskPower spokesman James Parker said.

The man reported he had been on a boat on the lake when he hit bad weather. He ended up stranded in the bush, with no way to communicate with the outside world, Parker said.

But he had an axe and he knew SaskPower would have to check the downed line, so he went to work.

"Essentially it was mission accomplished, because we got the call, we chartered a helicopter "¦ and on Friday around noon we discovered him," Parker said.

Funeral Crasher Was There for the Food

A man spotted at dozens of funerals in Wellington, New Zealand, has been warned away from further attendance. He has not been identified, but the staff of the Harbour City Funeral Home took his picture and distributed it to other funeral homes. The respectably-dressed middle-aged man would show up for as many as four funerals a week and fill his backpack with containers of food. He hasn't been seen since a staff member took him aside and told him he couldn't take food home.

Flying Over the Airport Tollbooth -in a Car

A car approaching the tollbooth at the Dallas-Fort Worth International airport struck a concrete barrier and flew over the booth. Security cameras recorded the car's launch. When it came to rest, the driver got out and started making a call on her cell phone. That's when the vehicle exploded. The tollbooth operator and other drivers were uninjured, but driver Yasmine Villasana sustained a broken wrist. Villasana was arrested for driving while intoxicated.

Transgendered Men Not Arrested for Flashing Breasts

A group of transgendered men caused a commotion at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware last weekend when they took off their tops to show their enhanced breasts. Beachgoers complained to lifeguards, who requested that the men cover up. When they refused, someone called police. The group however, had covered up by the time police arrived. No citations were issued, because technically it is not illegal for anyone with male genitalia to expose his chest, although it would be illegal for a female to do so.

"We'll see if we need to address it," said Kathy McGuiness, one of Rehoboth's commissioners. McGuiness said this will be a topic at a town hall meeting next week.

"I can't speak for the mayor or anyone else. I can speak for myself because I am a commissioner. I hardly see us reversing the topless law. I don't think we are going to repeal it and allow women to go topless. Now if someone is going to go through the process of having implants, then they probably should think about following the laws of the person they would like to become," McGuiness said.

Observatory Dressed as R2D2

A unidentified group of students at Carleton College in Minnesota staged a very big prank at Goodsell Observatory on the campus. The entire front of the building with its distinctive dome was dressed to resemble R2D2, the Star Wars droid! The facade was also outfitted with sound effects. See a video at Facebook.

Engaged Couple have been Together Since Birth

Amy Singley's mother and Steven Smith's mother became friends when they shared a room in the maternity ward at St. Luke's Hospital in Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania in 1986. Their babies were both born on April 17th of that year. The two families remained in contact over the years as they attended the same church. Now Amy and Steven, who have dated since high school, are set to be married on June 12th. Neither of them will ever have an excuse for forgetting the other's birthday.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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