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The Weird Week in Review

One-armed Monkey Kills 80 Chickens

Li Chun, farmer in Menghai, Yunnan, China found an injured monkey and adopted it, although the monkey had to have an arm and a leg amputated. It became a household pet. Now there's the problem of "monkey see, monkey do." The monkey watched Li crack eggs, and then went to the hen house and cracked every egg it could find. It saw Li slaughter a chicken, and now the monkey has killed around 80 chickens! No word on what Li plans to do about his overly-helpful house pet.

Don't Store Your Gun in the Stove

Antoine Boutte of College Park, Georgia was in the habit of storing his gun in the bottom of his gas stove. Last Saturday, he forgot the loaded .40 caliber Smith & Wesson was there and fired up the stove to cook a meal. The gun's magazine melted in the heat, and bullets started going off like popcorn. The damage may have been confined to the stove, if no one had opened the oven door.

Boutte's friend, Christopher Henderson, opened the stove "to see what was happening," the police report said.

That's when part of a bullet casing flew out of the stove, hitting Henderson in the stomach, police said.

Henderson was taken to a hospital and treated for non-life threatening injuries.

Superheroes Need Super Support Groups

Every day, more and more people are donning costumes and roaming the streets performing acts of kindness or heroism. These real-life superheroes now have an organization to turn to when they need help. Superheroes Anonymous is there to help understand and empower superheroes. The group helps heroes find their inner powers and encourages them in their quest to make the world a better place. However, SA discourages vigilantism, and asks its members to leave crime fighting to the police. So far, Superheroes Anonymous has two chapters, in Portland and New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Not Your Everyday Money Laundering

In some places, US bank notes are considered filthy lucre. So filthy, in fact, that they have to be washed. This isn't what you normally think of when you think of money laundering; this is actual soap and water washing in Zimbabwe. Since Zimbabwe dollars are near-worthless, other currencies are used instead, and American dollars are preferred. Not only do they stay in circulation longer than in the US, they are carried in shoes and underwear, and they change hands a lot. The recommended method is hand washing, but washing machines are also used. Those who know say chemical dry cleaning will cause the ink to fade.

Spicy Curry Could Curb Methane Emissions

The problem of the methane from livestock farts and burps puts a significant amount of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Researchers at Newcastle University say that adding curry spices to livestock feed could reduce those emissions.

Research has found that coriander and turmeric - spices traditionally used to flavour curries - can reduce the amount of methane produced by sheep by up to 40 per cent.

Working a bit like an antibiotic, the spices were found to kill the methane-producing ''bad'' bacteria in the animal's gut while allowing the ''good'' bacteria to flourish.

Spices also help an animal digest its food more efficiently, which could reduce the amount of feed needed. Coriander was the most efficient spice in the experiment, followed by tumeric and then cinnamon.

Woman Celebrates 130th Birthday

Antisa Khvichava celebrated her 130th birthday yesterday in Sachire, Georgia. She worked as a tea and corn picker until she was 85 years old, then retired and now lives with her grandson, who is now 40. Khvichava's birth certificate was lost long ago, but has Soviet documents that state that she was born in 1880. Family, friends, and neighbors vouch for her age. Suspiciously, Khvichava's son is 70 years old, which would mean Khvichava was 60 years old when she gave birth to him.

Wine Vending Machines Appear in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania now has vending machines from which you can buy a bottle of wine -IF you are sober enough for an automated breath test, have a valid driver's license proving your age, and don't mind having your picture taken by a machine. If that sounds too complicated, you should know that wine vending machines are a plan to make it easier for people to buy a bottle, because of the complicated liquor laws in the state. Not everyone is convinced that the vending machines are a good idea. Some say the machines will not be effective enough in keeping underage drinkers from using them. At the same time, others say the machines will be too difficult to use. However, customers have given the machines thumbs ups in early surveys.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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