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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
Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
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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