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The Weird Week in Review

Drunk Driver Crashes into Sober House

An SUV driven by a drunk driver slammed into a building in south Los Angeles Saturday night. Firefighters arrived to find the vehicle inside a room. Five people in the house (who were asleep when the crash occurred) and the driver suffered minor injuries. The residential building was serving as a sober living facility. The driver will be charged with felony DUI.

Letter Arrives 66 Years Late

The U.S. Postal Service delivered a letter to a California address with a postmark indicating it was mailed from Alabama on August 9th, 1944. The letter is addressed to:

“Miss R.T. Fletcher, American Red Cross Station Hospital, Camp Roberts, California.”

As you might imagine, Miss Fletcher is no longer at Camp Roberts. The letter was delivered to Gary McMaster, the volunteer curator for the Camp Roberts Historical Museum.

McMaster would like for Miss Fletcher or her relatives to get the still-sealed letter, which seems to be several pages long. The postal service has no idea why the letter was so late to arrive.

Fire Department Removes Stray Dog from Refrigerator

A family in Yuma, Arizona, called the Humane Society about a stray dog in their refrigerator. But they got a faster response from the local fire department. Yuma Fire Department spokesman Mike Erfert said the terrier-type dog was on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and wouldn’t let anyone near. The residents said the dog ran inside when they opened the front door and barked and snapped at them. They were going to try to lure him outside with food, but when they opened the refrigerator, the dog jumped in and wouldn’t leave. It snapped at them so much they couldn’t even close the refrigerator door! Firefighters wore protective suits as they extracted the dog. An animal control officer took the dog, which was later reunited with its owner.

Facebook Squabble Leads to Jail Time

An online breakup led to a real life fight between 35-year-old Thomas Gannon and his girlfriend, 31-year-old Tina Cash, both of Brooksville, Florida. Apparently, Cash unfriended Gannon on Facebook and changed her relationship status. Gannon said when he confronted Cash about the change, she started throwing things at him. Cash said Gannon also threw objects and punched her in the face. Both were arrested and charged with battery.

A Very Personal Gravestone

Petra Dumitru of Romania always said that when he died, he wanted his gravestone to pay tribute to the two great loves of his life -his wife, and good wine. When Dumitru died at age 75, his relatives made sure his wishes were carried out -by embedding a picture in the headstone. The photograph shows Dumitru drinking from a bottle while his wife stands beside him. Church officials say the photograph is “undignified.”

Dog Must Eat Standing Up

Ronnie the 7-month-old Rottweiler has megaoesophagus, an incurable condition that makes it impossible for him to eat or drink like other dogs. He cannot swallow properly, and relies on gravity to get his kibble to his stomach. Therefore, it can take up to 20 minutes to spoon-feed him while he stands on his rear legs.

Staff at Leeds Dogs Trust rehoming centre have helped to make life easier for Ronnie after they designed and built him a special feeding station.

Manager Amanda Sands said: “We’ve fed Ronnie standing up since he came to the centre with his littermates aged seven weeks but now that he is bigger we can’t support and feed him at the same time.

“We designed the feeding station so he can support himself while we spoon-feed him. He happily gets in by himself.

Ronnie will only be adopted out to a home in which he can receive the time and help he needs.

Baby Born in Strip Club Parking Lot

A baby boy born on Tuesday may hold the record for the earliest visit to a strip club. Nate Jones, a writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was rushing his wife Amenze to Plano, Texas to give birth. He was pulled over by a Grand Prairie police officer for speeding -Jones says he was going about 80 miles an hour. They were allowed to continue their trip, but his wife said she wouldn’t make it, so Jones pulled into the parking lot of a topless strip club and dialed 911. Ambulance attendants helped deliver a 7 pound, 5 ounce boy, after which the mother and child were taken to a hospital in Arlington. The father was familiar with the club, as he had written about it for the newspaper.

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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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