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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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!

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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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