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The Weird Week in Review

Man Dressed as Cow Steals 26 Gallons of Milk

A man dressed in a cow costume went into a Walmart store in Stafford, Virginia, filled a cart with 26 gallons of milk and wheeled out of the store without paying. Outside, he began to give away the milk to passers-by. Police were called, and found 18-year-old Jonathan Payton, no longer wearing the cow costume, in a car at a nearby McDonalds. Payton was given a summons for shoplifting. The milk and the cow costume were recovered outside the store.

Bumping Banned for Bumper Cars

They might have to start calling them something else. Three Butlin resorts in Britain have banned bumping in their bumper car rides.

Bemused customers who assume that the ‘no bumping sign’ is in jest are told to drive around slowly in circles rather than crash into anyone else for fear of an injury that could result in the resort being sued.

Telegraph columnist Michaal Deacon, who has just returned from a holiday at the Bognor Regis resort, said the experience was like “trundling round an exitless roundabout”.

“I’m not convinced that the dangers were great, given that the bumper cars were equipped with bumpers,” he said. “Seat belts, too. There were no airbags for the drivers, but it can be only a matter of time."

Boat Abandoned at Intersection

A motorist in Bülach, Switzerland, was towing a boat behind his vehicle and came to a stop at a traffic light. When the car continued, the boat became unhitched and was left sitting at the intersection. The driver didn't appear to notice that his boat was no longer behind him. Other vehicles were left blocked at the intersection. Police eventually caught up with the driver and made him return to pick up his boat.

Man Sues Parents for Allowance

An unnamed 25-year-old man in the Andalusia region of Spain was upset that his parents quit giving him his 400 euro monthly allowance. He was still living with his parents, who told him to start looking for a job. So, he took his parents to court and sued them for the money! A judge ruled that the man must move out of his parent's home within 30 days and look for a job. However, he also ruled that the parents must give him 200 euros a month to help in the transition.

Suspect Asks Victim to Install Stolen Stereo

Tuesday morning, Eric Ford's girlfriend found that a window had been broken and her multimedia system had been stolen from her vehicle. Several iPods and some money were also taken. Ford then went to his job installing car stereos at Mobile Audio Designs in Lincoln, Nebraska. Within hours, 21-year-old Anthony Trang came into the business and approached Ford about installing a DVD player. Ford recognized the Clarion NX501 deck that was stolen earlier. Ford called police, who arrested Trang on suspicion of theft.

Grocery Store Opens By Itself

A grocery store in Hamilton, New Zealand opened its doors automatically without any store employees present on Good Friday morning. The store's computer system opened the doors at 8AM, and shoppers came in as usual. Some bought groceries and used the self-checkout, while others just left without paying.

Supermarket owner Glenn Miller was initially furious over the incident, fearing that thousands of dollars of groceries might have walked out the door. But after reviewing the shop's security footage during the weekend his mood had mellowed.

"I can certainly see the funny side of it ... but I'd rather not have the publicity, to be honest. It makes me look a bit of a dickhead."

Customers' choices were recorded on closed-circuit TV, but Miller says he will not prosecute those who left without paying. See a video report.

Robbery Suspect Escapes with Cuffs, Chair

Police in Buffalo, New York arrested 58-year-old John Caesar Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of robbing a restaurant. They secured Caesar at the police station by handcuffing him to a chair. The next thing they knew, Caesar was gone, chair and all. Police believe he slipped out the back door of the station. He was seen Wednesday morning riding a bicycle, with the handcuffs still attached. The police re-arrested Caesar, who was no longer attached to the chair.

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
iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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