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The Weird Week in Review

Woman Arrested for Stealing Trash

Take heed: dumpster diving can get you arrested. A 21-year-old woman took some potato waffles, pies, and ham that had been discarded from Tesco Express in Great Baddow, Essex, England. She wasn't the only one, as dozens of people helped themselves to groceries that had been set out after a power outage left the food unfit for sale. But Sasha Hall was arrested at her home later on charges of "theft by finding" of £200 worth of food. The police took her to the station in handcuffs.

Council Sends Refugees to Dog Club

The Hammersmith and Fulham Council in England is in the process of selling off a building to make room for the West London free school. Twenty community aid organizations are being evicted. One of them is the Afghan Council UK, which advises refugees from Afghanistan.

The report suggested that refugees who use the centre could instead contact the Southern Afghan Club, reports The Mirror.

The Afghan Council UK offers support to Afghan refugees - while the Southern Afghan Club is a dog appreciation society which organises shows in the south of England.

"Dead" Man Used Brother's Identity for 49 Years

Paul Woodhouse, who lives in the United Kingdom, remembers his half-brother Roy who was in and out of trouble before moving to South Africa, where he died in the 1960s. But Roy Woodhouse didn't die. Paul received a call from the immigration detention center in Hawaii, where his brother had confessed to living under an assumed identity -that of Paul Woodhouse. Paul helped immigration officials confirm Roy's true identity, which paves the way for Roy to be returned to Britain. Paul spoke to his brother for the first time in 49 years and was told that Roy had been living in Hawaii since 1995. Paul says he has forgiven his brother and said the deception had no effect on his life.

Burglars Landed in Jail Before Arrest

Two suspected burglars were being chased through Bogota, Colombia, by police. They ran over rooftops and jumped walls to evade capture. The last wall they jumped landed them inside La Picota, one of Colombia's biggest jails. The alarm went off immediately, and both men were captured. If convicted, they might stay at La Picota for some time to come.

State Sues Museum for John Lennon's Guitar

The state of Illinois has filed suit against the Peace Museum in Chicago. The museum hasn't staged an exhibit since 2004 and has effectively gone out of business. According to the suit, the museum's storage facilities have suffered from mold and water damage. The state wants to take the museum's inventory in order to preserve and protect it. The museum's possessions are not adequately cataloged, but are said to include John Lennon's guitar and other possessions, and memorabilia from U2, the Clash, the Talking Heads, and other rock bands.

30,000 Pigs Lost?

The Queensland, Australia newspaper The Morning Bulletin covered stories from the recent floods. One livestock farmer was particularly devastated.

Mr Everingham said: "We've lost probably about 30,000 pigs in the floods, we tried to get as many weaners and suckers out by boat, but we could only save about 70 weaners, and the suckers didn't survive long, because they needed that mother's milk, and all the sows have been washed away.

But later the story was corrected.

What Baralaba piggery-owner Sid Everingham actually said was "30 sows and pigs", not "30,000 pigs"

Thieves Steal Empty Safe

A cabinet store in Nanaimo, British Columbia, was robbed last weekend. Thieves took a laptop computer, a memory stick, and a safe. The safe was empty. Owner Russel Inglis said he only kept the 700-pound safe around because it was an antique. In fact, he had hired a crane to move the safe into the store. The thieves apparently gained entrance through a loading door that an employee had neglected to lock.

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
iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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