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The Weird Week in Review

Restaurant Serves Breast Milk Ice Cream

A ice cream parlor in London, England has a new flavor on the menu. “Baby Gaga” is made from 75% human breast milk and 25% cow milk (plus vanilla and other flavoring). The Icecreamists will begin selling the ice cream Friday. The breast milk comes from 15 women who are receiving the equivalent of $1.61 an ounce for their milk, making lactation quite lucrative for the mothers. The ice cream will sell for $22 a serving.

Dog Rescued by Dolphins

A doberman pincher named Turbo went missing from his home in Marco Island, Florida last weekend. He was gone for 15 hours before being pulled out of a canal by a neighbor Monday morning. Owner Cindy Burnett said the splashing of dolphins alerted the neighbor to the dog in distress.

“The lady here who had gotten him out of the canal said, ‘No, the dolphins were with him,’” Burnett explained.

Dolphins got a neighbor’s attention – alerting them to a stranded pooch in shallow water.

“If he had to tread water all night long, I know he wouldn’t have been able to,” Burnett said.

Beer to be Classified as Alcohol in Russia

For the first time in history, beer, currently classified as food, is set to be reclassified as an alcoholic drink in Russia. The move is a part of the Kremlin’s war on alcoholism, as beer consumption has tripled over the last 15 years in the country. The new classification means that officials can limit when beer is sold and regulate the size of the containers. Many Russians consider beer to be a soft drink.

Museum Finds Vandalism Funny

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts rented a billboard sign for their exhibition “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting.” It featured a portion of the nude painting Venus Rising from the Sea. It didn’t stay nude. Someone painted a red bra on the artwork and the letters “Brrr”. The museum’s head of public relations, Anne-Marie Wagener, found the paint job funny, especially with the hint that Venus was cold in the Minnesota weather. Without that, Wagener said, it would look like censorship. The museum will leave the billboard as it is for now.

Nun Tossed Out Over Facebook

Sister Maria Jesus Galan was asked to leave the Santo Domingo el Real convent in Toledo, Spain, where she had lived for 35 years -over her Facebook activities. The Dominican convent, which normally discourages nuns from dealing with the outside world, first allowed a computer in ten years ago, and Sister Maria put it to work. She digitized the convent’s archives and even won awards for her computer work. But fellow nuns complained that Sister Maria’s Facebook habit interfered with cloistered life and “made life impossible.” At the time, Sister Maria had 600 Facebook friends. She was asked to leave, and now lives with her mother in Toledo. Her Facebook profile shows 1900 friends now, and her fan page has over 11,000 supporters.

America’s Most-injured Soldier Going Back to War

Captain D.J. Skelton was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Fallujah in 2004. The explosive tore through his face. Six years and 60 surgical operations later, Skelton is left with a missing eye, no palate, and limited use of his left arm and ankle. The captain used his years of recovery to graduate from West Point, learn Chinese, and prepare to return to active duty.

Retired Army officer Lieutenant General John Nagl, a friend of Capt Skelton, said what he had accomplished should have been ‘physically incapable for him’.

‘Certain things are tough for him to do. The rifle is tough. He’s good with a pistol. In some cases, it’s good to have a company commander behind a rifle, but he makes up for it in other ways.

‘I have no doubt that he will succeed’.

Skelton is scheduled to take command of the 192 men from his previous unit in southern Afghanistan.

Cat Purrs at 90 Decibels

The loudest purr in the world? Let’s hope so! Smokey the cat, of Pitsford, Northampton, England, purrs so loudly that her owners Ruth and Mark Adams can’t hear themselves think. They have trouble watching the TV or holding phone conversations when Smokey is in the room. The cat’s purr averages around 80 decibels and at least once measured 90 decibels. That’s as loud as a lawnmower or a plane landing!

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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
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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