The Weird Week in Review

7-year-old Wins Art Contest by Accident

Rebekah Poulain of Torquay, Devon, England thought she was uploading her child's artwork to a private folder online, but mistakenly added it to a public folder in 2009. The mistake did not come to light until a year later, when Leilah Poulain, who was seven years old when she painted the picture, was notified that she had won an art contest. Her mother had accidentally entered the competition when she uploaded the artwork! Leilah beat out 1,700 entrants, and her painting of a penguin is now on display at the world-famous Saatchi Gallery in London.

Assault with a Dead Weasel

An unnamed man in Hoquiam, Washington was arrested on charges of assault. He apparently burst into an apartment looking for his girlfriend. The apartment belonged to the woman's former boyfriend, and she was a guest. The attacker was carrying a dead animal.

The victim asked, "Why are you carrying a weasel?" Police said the attacker said, "It's not a weasel, it's a marten," then punched him in the nose and fled.

The perpetrator left the animal carcass behind. Police caught up with him later and arrested him. For the sake of accuracy, a marten is a member of the weasel family.

Guess the Substance

Frontier Airlines called in a report that sparked a response from the Milwaukee Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit. A suspicious white powder was found on board a flight from Phoenix to Milwaukee -on a diaper changing table. You can see where this is going. A flight attendant doing a final check reported the powder, and the TSA began an investigation. There were diapers in the waste bin, and it was determined that there were two infants aboard the flight. The investigation eventually determined that the substance was, in fact, baby powder. The TSA was called "out of an abundance of caution," according to Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuk.

One-armed Man Single-handedly Robs Bank

The US Marshal's Fugitive Task Force arrested Carmen Palella in connection with a bank robbery Tuesday in Albany, New York. Palella, who lost his hand and forearm in a traffic accident when he was 12, allegedly robbed the State Employees Federal Credit Union. He walked in, demanded money, and left with an undisclosed amount of cash. He did not mention having a weapon, and no one was injured. Palella is on parole for an earlier bank robbery.

Twin Friars Die on Same Day

Identical twins Julian and Adrian Riester did everything together. They were born together on March 27, 1919. They were rejected for military service because of one bad eye each, on opposite sides like a mirror image. They joined the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor together, and served in the same location for most of their 65 years of service. Brother Julian died Wednesday morning at St. Anthony Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. Brother Adrien died that afternoon. The cause of death for both was heart failure. They were 92 years old.

Titanic II Sinks

Maybe he should have seen it coming. Mark Wilkinson of Birmingham, UK, bought a used 16-foot cabin cruiser named Titanic II. The boat sprung a leak on Wilkinson's very first outing from a port in Dorset, and just like its namesake, the boat sank beneath the water.

“It's all a bit embarrassing and I got pretty fed up with people asking me if I had hit an iceberg,” Wilkinson, 44, told British newspaper The Telegraph.

When Wilkinson returned to the harbor on his second-hand boat (worth about $1,600), it sprung a leak. U.K. newspaper The Sun reported that a large hole opened up in the fiberglass hull. Soon, the stern of the boat was fully submerged in water. As the small cruiser went down stern-first, Wilkinson abandoned ship when a harbor master threw in a life preserver attached to a rope.

Onlookers cracked that the small boat could have been sunk by an ice cube.

Man Crashes While Driving to Traffic Court

Robert Eugene Craver of Salisbury, North Carolina has several court dates this summer on various charges ranging from traffic violations to assaulting an officer. He was driving to court to answer charges of reckless driving on Thursday morning when his pickup truck crossed into the oncoming lane and crashed into another truck. Both drivers were taken to a hospital with undisclosed injuries. Before leaving the scene, Craver explained that he was late for court, and took his eyes off the road while looking for his attorney's phone number. Police at the scene believe Craver was under the influence of drugs.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]