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The Weird Week in Review

Car Wedged Between Homes

An unidentified drunk driver crashed his vehicle in San Pedro, California early Sunday morning. The car hit the curb and launched into the air, coming to rest five feet above ground, with its front and rear ends embedded in two adjacent houses! The driver and a passenger, both under 21, were unhurt. The driver was arrested and police are investigating to determine how fast the car was going when it launched into the air. A couple were sleeping upstairs in one home and woke to find a car jutting into their dining room. The other home was unoccupied. The damage to the two houses is estimated at around $100,000.

Chernobyl to Open for Tourism

For 24 years, no one was allowed in the area around Chernobyl, Ukraine after an explosion at the nuclear plant contaminated everything with radiation. That may change soon. Officially sanctioned guided tours are expected to begin sometime next year.

Several hundred evacuees have returned to their villages in the area despite a government ban. A few firms now offer tours to the restricted area, but the government says those tours are illegal and their safety is not guaranteed.

Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Yershova said experts are developing travel routes that will be both medically safe and informative for Ukrainians as well as foreign visitors. She did not give an exact date when the tours were expected to begin.

A new billion-dollar safety shell is being built over the reactor. That project should be completed in 2015.

Burglar Steals Laptop, Uploads Picture to Facebook

A home burglary in Washington, D.C. took an unusual turn when the perpetrator left a taunting calling card on Facebook. A man broke into Marc Fisher's home and took cash, clothing, electronics, and other items, including his son's laptop computer. Later, a new profile picture was uploaded to the 15-year-old son's Facebook page. It was the thief, wearing the new winter coat he stole and flashing a wad of purloined cash! Facebook will hand over any information they have if and when they received a subpoena from the police. No arrests have been made.

Baby Goat Born During Staged Nativity

A church in West Columbia, South Carolina staged a drive-through nativity scene last weekend. The hundreds of people who came to see it got more than they expected when a participating goat on loan from a local farm gave birth to a kid. The female kid was standing on her own within 15 minutes. The music minister named her Beth, short for Bethlehem.

Ohio Lighthouse Encased in Ice

A winter storm earlier this week left a large part of the Midwest covered in ice. That was especially true in Cleveland, as structures along the shores of Lake Erie were completely encased. A combination of freezing rain, freezing waves, and high winds frosted the entire West Pier lighthouse with inches of ice! Trees, vehicles, wharfs, and other structures were also covered -not just glazed- with a layer of ice. (Thanks, Beki!)

2,400-year-old Soup

You'd think soup would completely dry up after a couple of thousand years, but a pot of still-liquid soup was found by a team of archaeologists in China. It was sealed inside a bronze cooking pot at a dig near Xian.

The soup and bones were discovered in a small, sealed bronze vessel in a tomb being excavated to make way for the extension of the airport in Xian, home to the country's famed ancient terracotta warriors, the report said.

The liquid and bones in the vessel had turned green due to the oxidation of the bronze, it said. Scientists were expected to conduct further tests to confirm the liquid was indeed soup and to identify the ingredients.

Another liquid discovery at the same site is believed to be wine.

Escaping Cat Saves Burning House

A 3-year-old cat named Pepper used a trick worthy of Houdini to escape from a burning kitchen in Stoke Gabriel, South Devon, England. Frightened by an exploding microwave, he leapt to a window and nudged the window catch open with his nose. Neighbors noticed smoke billowing from the open window and alerted the fire department. Homeowners Phil and Sharon White are grateful the fire was contained, and credit both the cat and the observant neighbors for saving their home.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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
Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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