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The Weird Week in Review

Innovative, But Illegal

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska arrested 40-year-old William Logan Jr. on a misdemeanor theft charge. Logan was caught on surveillance camera using a vacuum to suck change out of coin laundry appliances. Detectives went to the home where Logan lived with his father, who recognized him from the surveillance photos right off. Logan only retrieved about $20 from the machines at an apartment laundry room. Logan was known to local authorities from previous arrests, including a conviction for stealing a Christmas tree from the Salvation Army.

Rain of Worms

Teacher David Crichton was holding a physical education class outdoors in Galashiels, Scotland, last week when worms began raining from the sky.

The boys heard a "soft thudding" on the artificial pitch - then looked up to see dozens of worms plummeting from the sky.

David, 26, said he and other teachers at Galashiels Academy were baffled by the incident.

And they later found more worms spread across a school tennis court almost 100 yards from the pitch. He said: "We started hearing this wee thudding noise. There were about 20 worms on the ground.

School staff eventually found about 120 worms. It is believed that a freak weather event lifted the worms along with water from a nearby river. The story was first reported on April first, but there is of yet no indication that it was an April Fool.

The Honeymoon from Hell

Stefan and Erika Svanstrom of Stockholm, Sweden set out on a world tour for their honeymoon. They were stranded in a heavy snowstorm in Munich, Germany in December. They arrived in Cairns, Australia just in time for a cyclone. The couple traveled to Brisbane to find flooding, so left for Perth where there were raging brushfires. The Svanstroms then went to Christchurch, New Zealand, arriving just after the big earthquake in February. They went to a few other locations before traveling to Tokyo, Japan days before the earthquake and tsunami. A calm visit to China wrapped up their trip and they returned to Stockholm on March 29th. The good news is that their marriage survived the trip.

Training Sharks to Eat

Lionfish are pretty, but they belong in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They lack natural predators in the Caribbean, so lionfish have become quite the invasive species since they escaped from aquariums ten years ago to breed in the waters off the US and Central America. In Honduras, divers are not only hunting them, they are also training sharks to eat the lionfish! Humans are also encouraged to eat lionfish, which are tasty once the venomous spines are removed.

Elderly Woman Cuts off Internet in Two Countries

An unnamed 75-year-old woman in Ksani, Georgia was looking for scrap metal and dug up a cable, which she cut in order to sell it. The cable was a fiber optic line that carried internet service to users in Georgia and neighboring Armenia. Thousands of subscribers in both countries were offline for several hours, with up to 90 percent of users in Armenia affected. The woman was arrested for damaging property, and could face up to three years in jail. Due to her age, she was released pending trial.

Man Glued to Walmart Toilet Seat

An April Fool's Day prank left a man stuck to a toilet seat at the Walmart store in Elkton, Maryland. Lt. Matthew Donnelly of the Elkton Police Department said someone put glue on a toilet seat in the store's mens room.

There, they found the 48-year-old victim, who called for help after realizing the sticky situation he was in when he tried -- and failed -- to stand up and leave the superstore's restroom, Donnelly said.

It took responders 15 minutes to remove the victim from the stall, but they were unable to disconnect the toilet seat from his body, Donnelly said.

Instead, the victim was taken to Union Hospital of Cecil County, where the seat was detached. He left with only minor injuries to his buttocks, Donnelly said.

The perpetrator, if found, could face second-degree assault charges.

Woman Fights to Keep her Disabled Kangaroo

Christie Carr of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma is seeking an exemption from the city council from the regulation against keeping exotic animals. Carr cares for a paralyzed red kangaroo named Irwin. Carr, who suffers from depression, knew Irwin even before the animal's run-in with a fence that left him disabled. Now he is her certified therapy animal, and Carr takes him everywhere, including visits to a nursing home where the residents enjoy cuddling with a kangaroo. Because of his paralysis, Irwin is not likely to grow to full size or become dangerous, but city council members are leery of setting a precedent with an exemption.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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!

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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
Original image
iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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