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The Weird Week in Review

Octopus Receives World Cup for Predictions

A two-year-old octopus named Paul received worldwide acclaim for predicting the winner of the World Cup tournament. Paul correctly picked the winners of eight games by selecting one of two food containers with flags of the matched countries on them in his tank at Sea Life aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany. For his efforts, the octopus was presented his own cup, a replica of the trophy given to the champion Spanish team, on Monday.

Dyslexic Postman Can't Read Addresses

Wayne Daniels delivered mail for the British Royal Mail service, until March, when it was discovered that he had dumped 420 letters instead of delivering them. The 25-year-old man pleaded guilty to theft and delaying the mail on Monday. Daniels' defense lawyer explained why he did it.

Fran Tyler, defending, said: "He suffers from dyslexia and he was struggling to read the addresses.

"He said it was an impulsive action born out of frustration and said it was a disgrace to himself and to the Royal Mail. He had not discussed the problem with colleagues because of a mixture of pride and embarrassment."

Daniels was ordered to pay a fine and perform community service.

Fisherman Reels in 5-pound Goldfish

Nick Richards caught a big fish at a lake at Poole, Dorset, England, but it may have been someone's pet. The catch was a 5-pound goldfish -the biggest goldfish ever caught in England! The 16-year-old Richards speculates that someone may have taken the fish to the lake when it outgrew an aquarium. Richards named the fish Billy, had pictures taken with it, and returned the fish to the lake.

Man Fined $2,000 For Taking Garbage

Paul Lawrence saw a woman put an air conditioner out with her garbage in Queens, New York, and asked if he could take it. She consented, but a sanitation worker saw the exchange, which led to a $2,000 ticket for Lawrence. Further, the vehicle used in the caper was impounded, and Lawrence's aunt, who owns the car, was also fined $2,000! Technically, rubbish at the curb is city property. New York City receives revenue for recycling, so Lawrence's new air conditioner was considered stolen goods. Officials say the law is intended to stop organized theft of recyclables. Lawrence intends to fight the fine.

Dog Honks Horn for Emergency

Max the chocolate Lab was inadvertently left in the car when his owner was unloading packages at their home in Macungie, Pennsylvania. The temperatures outside was in the 90s, and the parked car began to warm up quickly. What did Max do? He honked the horn! His owner looked outside and saw nothing, but Max continued to honk until she came outside and found him. Max was rushed to a local veterinarian, who treated the dog for heat exhaustion and said he had no serious injuries.

Swiss Bikers Deliver Condoms

Health authorities in Switzerland have a new campaign to encourage safe sex. When the need arises, people can have condoms delivered by bicycle courier! One phone call summons a delivery of condoms at $7.50 for a package. The initiative works with bike delivery services in Bern, Geneva, and Zurich. Numbers on how many take advantage of the service are due at the end of the month, but the publicity the program generates alone is worth the effort, according to the Swiss AIDS Federation.

Stolen Penguin Found

Kelli the penguin disappeared from the Dublin Zoo, a victim of pranksters who scaled a fence to snatch the 10-year-old Humboldt penguin from her enclosure. Luckily, Kelli has an implanted microchip that not only identifies the bird, but sends out a signal that can be traced. The penguin was found abandoned on a city sidewalk. After a medical checkup, Kelli was reunited with her partner Mick in the zoo's penguin enclosure.

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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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