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The Weird Week in Review

Dairy Princess is Lactose-intolerant

Laurel Gordon holds the title of Grays Harbor County's Dairy Ambassador and is competing for the post of Washington State Dairy Ambassador for the coming year. The requirements of the job are experience on a dairy farm or with dairy cows, a neat appearance, and residency in Washington state. There is no requirement that the contestant actually drink milk. Gordon is lactose-intolerant! She says she misses dairy products since she lost her ability to digest milk only two years ago. Gordon grew up on a dairy farm, and her sisters have also held the title of "Dairy Princess." If she wins the state title in June, she'll receive a $7,000 scholarship.

Woman Shoots Washer, Home Flooded

An unnamed estranged husband and wife were the focus of a police call in St. Lucie County, Florida. They had gotten together for an evening and the husband was cooking on the outside grill. The couple also engaged in target practice and fired shots inside the house. The wife called 911 when she began to think her husband was shooting too close to her. At least one shot from the woman hit the washing machine, causing metal shards to cut into her leg. The washer leaked and flooded the floor with water.

Asked to write a sworn statement, she said, "I'll try my best but I'm drunk."

Police confiscated all the guns, and told the couple to stay away from each other.

Three Albino Raccoons Found

A homeowner in Toronto called a wildlife control company when he saw a unidentified white animal in the garage. Brad Gates of Gates Wildlife Control thought it might be a skunk from the description. The crew found a litter of four raccoons -three of them albinos! The kits appeared to be somewhere around six to eight weeks old. Gates said that his company, in business for 27 years, had only seen albino raccoon kits twice, and in each case there was only a sole albino in a litter. Albino wild animals are rare because they are easy for predators to spot. The litter was put in a box and relocated to the roof of the house, where the mother raccoon could retrieve them.

Woman Attacked Roommate with Butter

Police in Collier County, Florida responded to a domestic disturbance call and found evidence of a food fight. Sheriff's deputies confronted Dawn Elizabeth Rhash, who allegedly threw butter at her male roommate in an argument over who owned the food items in the home. The police report noted that the victim had butter on his ankle. Alcohol may have been involved.

Drug Deal Pocket-dials Police

If you are involved in illegal activities, it only makes sense to not have 911 on speed dial. An emergency dispatcher in Hall County, Georgia, received a call in which she heard a conversation about a drug deal. Police traced the cell signal to a Waffle House location. When they arrived, they heard another policeman's voice coming from the pocket of 18-year-old Daniel Moore, whose phone had apparently "pocket-dialed" 911. The connection was still open when he was confronted by police at the scene. Moore was arrested for possession of prescription drugs.

Man Blew Up Like a Balloon

A 48-year-old truck driver was the victim of a bizarre accident in New Zealand that reads like a classic cartoon script.

Steven McCormack was standing on his truck's foot plate Saturday when he slipped and fell, breaking a compressed air hose off an air reservoir that powered the truck's brakes.

He fell hard onto the brass fitting, which pierced his left buttock and started pumping air into his body.

"I felt the air rush into my body and I felt like it was going to explode from my foot," he told local media from his hospital bed in the town of Whakatane, on North Island's east coast.

"I was blowing up like a football," he said. "I had no choice but just to lay there, blowing up like a balloon."

Co-workers released a valve to stop the air pressure, and he was taken to a hospital. Doctors say the air inflated McCormack's body under his skin as it separated fat from muscle. He is expected to recover.

Cat Raising Baby Chicks

A farmer in China noticed something really strange about his cat. She doesn't eat chicken. Instead, Niu Niu has taken 30 young chicks under her wing (so to speak), and even licks them clean. Lao Yang of Heilongjiang Province said when he saw the cat was in the chicks' box, he was sure the cat would eat them. But Niu Niu was playing with the babies, and they were climbing over her. He now trusts the cat to protect the chicks from harm. The chicks have bonded with Niu Niu, and follow her everywhere.

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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