CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Women Rescued After Truck Lands in Tree

Erin Dawn Bowser was apparently driving too fast along Route 68 in Evans City, Pennsylvania Monday morning. She hit a car and a guardrail and then her car launched off the side of the highway and into a tree, where it became stuck -30 feet above the ground! Rescue workers say Bowser was not only conscious, but calm as they set up equipment to retrieve her from the tree. The road was closed for several hours while a crew extracted Bowser. She was taken to a hospital with only minor injuries, and is facing several traffic citations. See a video report as well.

Oswald's Coffin for Sale

The coffin that Lee Harvey Oswald was buried in back in 1963 is up for sale at an auction house in California. The coffin spent 18 years underground until Oswald was exhumed in 1981 so that his identity could be confirmed. The presumed assassin who was shot and killed before going to trial for the murder of president Kennedy was then reburied in a different coffin. The wooden coffin is not in great shape, but experts say it can be restored. Bids will be taken until December 18th.

Lawnmower + Boat = Shortcutter

John Hinton of Horsham in West Sussex, England, combined a boat and a riding lawnmower to make a vehicle he can drive around traffic jams by slipping into a canal. The vehicle is completely amphibious. However, with a top speed of 6 miles per hour, the "shortcutter", as its called, is more likely to cause a traffic jam than to circumvent one. Hinton says his vehicle is a prototype and he will continue to improve it.

Dentists Repair Elephant's Tusk

A 27-year-old elephant named Devidasan developed a painful 19-inch crack in his tusk over the past five years. C.V. Pradeep, a dentist in Kerala, India, did some research and decided to fill the crack with the same resin used to repair human teeth. The difference: repairing the tusk took 47 tubes of resin in a two-hour operation!

"It was literally an elephantine task, because we had to find specialist equipment and modify it," Dr Pradeep said.

"The main difference between this and a similar operation carried out on humans is that we were not able to use X-ray screening, because none of our mobile X-ray units was large enough to suit the elephant's needs."

The elephant was not tranquilized, and remained cooperative through the procedure. The repair seems to have eased his toothache.

A Family of Three with One Birthday

Jamal White of St. Paul, Minnesota fell in love with a woman who had the same birth date as he did, November 24th, although she was a year older. Tiara White also had the same last name as Jamal even before they were married. The couple welcomed their first child, Jamal, Jr. into the world on -you guessed it- November 24th. The odds of all three family members having the same birthday were calculated at 1 in 133,225. And none of them will have any excuse for ever forgetting each other's birthdays.

Corn Flood

A grain silo in Norwalk, Ohio collapsed on Tuesday, sending a "sea of corn" into the area, covering a block of neighborhood. The over 100,000 bushels of spilled corn was 12 feet deep in some places. The rushing grain pushed a nearby house off its foundation and knocked over a fire hydrant. No injuries were reported, and officials don't know what caused the silo to collapse.

Teenager Swallows Bag of Cocaine

Massachusetts police pulled over 18-year-old Art Taylor in Framingham for failing to signal a turn. Taylor acted strangely when confronted and reached for a small bag containing white powder. Despite a struggle, he swallowed the bag containing what appeared to be cocaine. Taylor was arrested for assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest. You will understand why this item is in the weird news section only when you see his mugshot.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
Original image
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.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES