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The Weird Week in Review

Jesus Goes Up in Flames

A 62-foot tall statue of Jesus at the Solid Rock Church on I-75 near Cincinnati was sometimes called "Big Butter Jesus" or "Touchdown Jesus" because of his upstretched arms. Monday night, the statue was set ablaze by a bolt of lightning. The structure was made of foam and fiberglass over a steel frame. After the fire, only the frame remains. An adjacent amphitheater was damaged, and fish in the pond beneath the statue were killed. No one was injured. Police warn they will ticket anyone who stops on the interstate highway to take pictures of the damage.

Big Tip Allows Taxi Driver to Retire

Mary Watson of Newquay, Cornwall, England used the same taxi driver for 20 years when she went shopping. He was always kind and courteous. Then when Watson died in her 80s, she bequeathed Don Pratt a very large tip in her will. She left the driver £250,000! The sum includes the woman's savings and a house.

"When I was told she had left everything to me I just couldn't believe it. We were sad to hear she had passed but thankful she had left us this money.

"We are very grateful for her generosity. In nearly 30 years as a cabbie, this is certainly the biggest tip I've ever had."

The 65-year-old Pratt then announced he was retiring from driving.

Thief Steals Suit to Wear to Court

Phillip Northmore was facing shoplifting charges in Exeter, Devon, England. He didn't want to wear jeans and a t-shirt to court, but that was all the clothing he had. So on the way to court, Northmore stole a pair of trousers, jacket, shirt and tie so he would look respectable as he faced the judge. Instead, the 26-year-old was arrested and later pled guilty to theft and other outstanding charges.

Woman Arrested for Mayonnaise Vandalism

Boise, Idaho has seen a series of vandalism incidents involving condiments over the past year. Joy L. Cassidy was arrested Sunday moments after she was spotted putting mayonnaise into the drive-through book drop at the Ada County Library. The 74-year-old woman is under investigation for previous incidents in which librarians found books covered with corn syrup and ketchup. She is suspected in up to ten other condiment crimes.

In Other Mayonnaise News

Authorities in Destin, Florida closed off a neighborhood and called in a HAZMAT team after two residents complained of trouble breathing and irritated eyes as they inspected their new home. They also reported a funny smell. Neighbors who were evacuated speculated that the cause might be a meth lab or a terrorist cell. The HAZMAT team found a large barrel which contained five gallons of rancid mayonnaise. It had been left by the previous residents of the home.

Woman Fined for Nursing Baby -While Driving

An unnamed 47-year-old woman in Mettmann, Germany was pulled over by a policeman when he spotted her breastfeeding her 18-month-old while driving.

The woman objected to being pulled over, explaining that because her home was nearby, mother and child would have certainly made it home safely. But the officer refused to let her continue driving in that state.

Instead the woman was issued fines for failing to provide proper security for her child or herself while driving.

Man Calls 911 over Sasquatch Sighting

In the 1970s, Cleveland County, North Carolina had a slew of sightings of an mysterious Bigfoot-like animal that was dubbed "Knobby". The stories died down until Tim Peeler called 911 to report that he had seen a giant ape with a man's face in his yard. A Cleveland County deputy was dispatched to Peeler's home, but did not find the Bigfoot. Peeler says he'll be armed with a camera next time it happens. With video.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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