The Weird Week in Review

Cargo Ship Turned Away Due to Spiders

The cargo ship M.V. Altavia began to offload cargo in the U.S. territory of Guam when thousands of spiders of different species emerged from the cargo. The ship was carrying supplies used to build housing for temporary workers. Agriculture officials don't know what species of spiders were swarming the ship, but they don't want to take the chance of introducing an invasive species to Guam. The M.V. Altavia had most recently ported in South Korea. The ship was told not to return to Guam.

Man Broke into Bar -and Opened It

The Valencia Club in Penryn, California had been closed for a year when 29-year-old Travis Kevie helped himself to the business. He broke in and posted a sign that the bar was open. Kevie sold drinks for four days until a newspaper article mentioned that Valencia had re-opened, which interested county detective Jim Hudson.

Not only had Detective Hudson had previous run-ins with Kevie, he knew the Valencia Club's liquor license had been surrendered.

When Detective Hudson went to the bar to investigate, he found it open for business and customers at the bar.  Kevie quickly went from behind the bar to behind bars.

Parasailing Donkey

A leisure firm in Golubitskaya on the Azov Sea launched a donkey into the air by parasail as a promotional stunt. Tourists at the beach were distressed when they heard the donkey braying as it glided in the air for half an hour. After the video was released, Russian police are investigating the matter and may file charges of animal cruelty. If convicted, those responsible may be sentenced to up to two years.

Police Led on Horse-and-Buggy Chase

Police in Leon, New York saw a horse-and-buggy run a stop sign and chased the wagon for a mile at rather low speeds. The buggy only stopped when the driver, taking a turn too fast, rolled the vehicle over. The driver then fled on foot. After a week of investigation, police arrested an Amish youth, 17-year-old Levi Detweiler, on charges of reckless endangerment, over-driving an animal, underage possession of alcohol, failure to stop at a stop sign, and failure to yield to an emergency vehicle.

Elderly Women Receive Surprise Pot

An unnamed elderly woman in Blackman Township in Michigan received a mysterious package in the mail. She opened it and found two pounds of marijuana! She reported the package to police, who said the pot was worth about $2,400. A return address in Arizona turned out to be fake. Police believe that either the marijuana was mailed to the wrong address, or else someone had planned to steal the package from the elderly woman's mailbox.

Eighteen Monkeys in his Girdle

Authorities at the international airport in Mexico city detained a man arriving from Peru because of a strange bulge under his t-shirt. A search revealed that he had 18 tiny monkeys hidden in a girdle underneath! Only 16 of the 6-inch tall titi monkeys were still alive. Authorities arrested 38-year-old Roberto Cabrera on charges of endangered species trafficking.

Cabrera told authorities he was carrying the monkeys in a suitcase but decided to put them in his girdle "so the X-rays wouldn't hurt them."

Man Gets Livestock Citation For Ceramic Chickens

Robert Sosebee of Austell, Georgia came home to find he had been ticketed for keeping livestock in the city. But he doesn't own any chickens, except for a couple of ceramic hens decorating his lawn. Sosebee believes one of his neighbors saw the hens and reported then to authorities. The enforcement officer apparently relied on a complaint and had not looked for the chickens himself. Code enforcers later tore up the ticket.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]