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The Weird Week in Review

Eagle Drops Poodle Into a Better Life

A female poodle fell out of the sky onto the grounds of Shorncliffe Nursing Home in Sechelt, British Columbia. Talon marks in her back indicate that she was probably dropped by an eagle who became tired of the dog's 18-pound weight. The nursing home staff sent the poodle, later named Miracle May, to the Sunshine Coast SPCA. The eagle likely saved her life in the long run. May showed signs of longtime neglect, including rotted teeth and claws that were growing into her paw pads. She is recovering after medical intervention by the SPCA, but the Society needs donations to pay for her care.

Man Eats 25,000 Big Macs In 39 Years

Don Gorske of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, celebrated the purchase of a new car in 1972 by buying three Big Macs -and liked them so much that he bought six more that same day. Gorske began to eat Big Macs every day, usually two a day, for the next 39 years. Tuesday, the local McDonalds marked the occasion of Gorske's 25,000th Big Mac. It was not the first milestone. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized him three years ago, and he appeared in the 2004 film Supersize Me.

"I plan on eating Big Macs until I die," he said. "I have no intentions of changing. It's still my favorite food. Nothing has changed in 39 years. I look forward to it every day."

Gorske admits that he is probably obsessive-compulsive. He eats every Big Mac in exactly 16 bites, and keeps each box the sandwiches come in.

Fugitive Found Shopping for Bolt Cutters

Pensacola, Florida, police arrested 19-year-old Michael Jay Scott over a fight and took him to a hospital to treat his injuries. He sneaked out of the hospital, still in handcuffs. Later, police received a call from Home Depot employees about a suspicious customer. Scott had attempted to use bolt cutters at the store to remove the handcuffs, but was unsuccessful. He ran out the back of the store and climbed over a fence, but police caught up with him soon after. Scott was in possession of other items taken from Home Depot. He was taken back to the hospital, under closer watch.

The Pink Panther

A litter of kittens was dumped at a concrete factory in Redruth, Cornwall, England. The three girls and a boy were taken to an animal shelter named Cats Protection. The staff fed the kittens and washed them, but the reddish tint of the concrete dust won't come off! Three of the kittens are dark, but one is still stained pink -and will be until her fur grows out. So they named her Pink Panther! The other kittens were named Clouseau, Dusty, and Cerise.

Exploding Watermelons

The watermelon crops around Danyang in eastern China tend to explode this year. Watermelons from 20 farmers covering 45 hectares have been affected. The culprit is believed to be forchlorfenuron, a chemical growth accelerator that stimulates cell separation. Agricultural experts say the chemical was applied too late to the watermelon plants, which caused them to swell and suddenly burst. The use of fertilizers and other chemicals for agriculture is encouraged in China, and farmers receive discounts and subsidies for the chemicals. Many farmers now grow separate crops for their own consumption, and only use chemicals on their commercial crops. Experts say the use of forchlorfenuron is safe for the consumer, but can leave watermelons misshapen and unfit for sale.

Cow Coincidences Cause Cowshed Conflagration

A traffic accident in New Zealand started an almost-unbelievable chain reaction. A motorist was traveling near the town of Kaponga Friday night when he hit a cow, killing it.

The animal was thrown over the top of the car, peeling back the bonnet and shattering the windscreen. The car smashed into a pole which caused a power surge to race along the wires into the farmer's house.

The same surge blew up the cowshed meter board and set it on fire. However, it melted a water line directly above which extinguished the blaze.

The driver was not seriously injured.

Man Says Hospital Tattooed His Butt

Sheng Xianhui of Kunming, China went into a hospital to have gall stones removed. A week after surgery, his wife noticed a tattoo on his rear end. Sheng claims that the staff at Yunnan Stone Disease Hospital tattooed his backside with characters meaning "stone disease" while he was in surgery. Now he refuses to leave the hospital, saying that if he does, the hospital will say he had the tattoo done elsewhere. Police were called to evict the patient. Sheng welcomed the police involvement, but says he is staying. Hospital staff blames the marks on a possible allergic reaction.

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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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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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