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The Weird Week in Review

Tokyo's 'Oldest Man' Found Mummified

Sogen Kato had been on record as the oldest man in Tokyo, so it was only natural that city authorities wanted to wish him well on his 111th birthday. However, the family would not let anyone in to see the man. Suspicious welfare officials asked police to investigate. When the police gained access to Kato's bedroom, they found he was dead -and had been dead so long that the body was mummified! Relatives said Kato had voluntarily confined himself to his room 30 years ago and had became "a living buddha". However, the family received about $109,000 in pension payments for Kato in the six years since his wife died. The family is under investigation for fraud.

Missing Cat Turns Up 620 Miles from Home

A house cat named Timothy disappeared from his home in Brisbane, Australia nine months ago. The cat had a microchip implanted. This week, the RSPCA in Townsville, Queensland picked up three stray cats, only one of which had a microchip. It was Timothy! The two-year-old cat had mysteriously traveled more than a thousand kilometers from his home. He was clean and in good health, which may lead one to think that he caught a ride to Townsville instead of walking the distance, but after nine months, no one can say how he got so far from home.

New Home for Conjoined Twins

At 58, Ronnie and Donnie Galyon are the world's oldest conjoined twins. A couple of weeks ago, they moved into a new home that was custom-built for their needs, including extra-wide hallways and a custom-built bed to accommodate their physical structure. The Christian Youth Corps Inc. arranged for the home to be built, with Brentwood Builders donating their services. When the project was publicized, further donations came in to cover building materials and furnishings. Volunteers came to the Dayton, Ohio site to help out. The new house is attached to the home of their younger brother and his wife, who have been caring for the twins for years, but no longer have to drive four miles to see them.

Bear Breaks Into Car, Goes On Joy Ride

Police in Larkspur, Colorado investigated a complaint of a car with the horn blowing for 45 minutes in the middle of the night. They found the car, with a bear inside it. What's more, the bear had driven the car there! Ben Story had parked his car the night before and did not lock it. And there was a sandwich inside.

Ben's father, Ralph, said the bear hit the shifter and the car rolled backward about 125 feet, off the driveway, down an embankment and into some trees on Eagle Road near Tenderfoot Drive.

"So this bear opened the door on his own. Somehow the door closed behind him. He panicked and started thrashing around, hit the shifter and put the car, took it out of park," Ralph said. "It rolled back, down over the hill, and down into here, and stopped. The four way flashers were on. It's like he knew what was going on, and kept hitting the horn."

Police declined to open the car door, and finally freed the bear by tying a rope to the door handle so they could open it from further away. The bear wandered off, leaving the vehicle's interior shredded.

Bear Steals Teddy Bear

In other bear-acting-human news, a woman in Laconia, New Hampshire arrived home as a bear was helping himself to the family's belongings. The bear had eaten pears and grapes and drank from a fishbowl, spilling the fish. Mary Beth Parkinson said the bear also took a child's teddy bear from the house, which they later found in the backyard.

Parkinson said she thinks the garage door going up scared the bear out of her kitchen on Tuesday. She said the bear apparently took advantage of the open outside door. She said she arrived in time to save the fish.

"There was one fish left in here (and) one flipping on the counter," Parkinson said.

A bear had been spotted in the neighborhood a few days earlier as well. Parkinson says her two young sons are now careful to lock the doors before leaving or going to bed.

Ansel Adams Photos from Garage Sale Worth $200 Million

Rick Norsigian's hobby of bargain-hunting at rummage sales has paid off big time. Ten years ago, he bought a couple of boxes of glass photographic negatives for $45. Experts in photography, forensics, handwriting analysis, and other fields have examined the 65 negatives and believe them to be pictures taken by nature photographer Ansel Adams in the early part of his career before he became famous in the 1940s. The value? Possibly $200 million dollars! Norsigian would like to sell them eventually, but for now the plates are going on a tour of universities and museums.

Update: Some now think the negatives were taken by Earl Brooks.

Woman Fined for 'Defaming Husband's Manhood'

Vandana Gurjar filed for divorce from her husband Hemant Chhalotre in Madhya Pradesh, India. Her grounds for the action included Chhalotre's impotence. That was a mistake. He turned around and sued Gurjar for defamation, and she was ordered to pay him 200,000 rupees (£2,747)! He claimed that her revelation of his impotence ruined his reputation and his chances for remarriage. One supposes that a charge of cruelty or adultery might have been better for his ego, if not his reputation.

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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