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The Weird Week in Review

No Facebooking During Deliberations

Protip: when serving on a jury, do not "friend" those on trial. Joanne Fraill was a juror for a British drug case involving four defendants. After one defendant, Jamie Sewart, was acquitted, Fraill found her on Facebook, friended her, and struck up a conversation -about the case, which was still going on. Sewart reported the communication to her lawyer. The trial, already the third trial for this case, was aborted. A fourth trial with a new jury is now necessary, and Frail was charged with contempt.

Escapee Goes to Prison Guard for Help

While serving his fourth prison term, James Edward Russell escaped from the Olympic Corrections Center near Forks, Washington, on Tuesday. He wandered the woods for the day, and just after midnight, went to a cabin and asked to use the phone. Russell was still wearing his prison uniform. The cabin happened to be rented by an off-duty prison guard, who knew immediately that Russell was an escapee. After a scuffle, the fugitive fled and was captured soon after the guard reported him. Russell was sent to a higher-security facility.

Man Tries to Remove Wart

Sean Murphy of South Yorkshire, England, tried to remove a wart from his finger the old-fashioned way -with a gun. Murphy was at work when he shot a stolen 12-bore Beretta shotgun at the offending wart. He ended up shooting off most of his middle finger.

But he said: “The best thing is that the wart has gone. It was giving me lot of trouble.”

Murphy, a security officer at Markham Grange Nurseries, Brodsworth, at the time of the incident in March, has since lost his job. He had suffered with the wart on the joint closest to the tip of his middle finger for more than five years.

Murphy was arrested for theft of the gun and other firearms charges. Prosecutors said alcohol was involved.

Portland Drains Reservoir Over Urination

Officials in Portland, Oregon, closed a drinking water source and drained 7.8 million gallons of water from a Mt. Tabor reservoir because 21-year-old Joshua Seater peed in it. David Shaff of the Water Bureau said the cost of the drainage is about $7,600 and lost revenue would be around $28,500. Although dead animals are pulled from the reservoir without incident, and the water is treated before entering the system, Shaff said this was different because people would be "squeamish" about the urine. Seater has not been cited or arrested yet. He said he thought the treatment facility was a sewage plant.

A Drunk Driving Trifecta

Police in Timaru, New Zealand, pulled over a 15-year-old on State Highway 1 near Pareora and gave him a breathalyzer test. The unnamed driver registered three times the legal alcohol limit for teenage drivers. He was taken to the police station, where his mother was summoned to retrieve him. However, the mother was stopped on her way and registered twice the adult driving alcohol limit on a breath test. She subsequently called her partner to come and get her from the police station. He, in turn, was stopped on the way for suspected drunk driving as well. His test registered 150% of the legal limit. Supposedly the family was reunited -in jail.

Firefighters Rescue Sheep from Roof

Firefighters in Bridgend, Wales, were called to a home in Pontycymer because a sheep had been spotted walking around on the roof. A fireman at the scene said,

“It was running back and forward on the roof, but eventually it must have realised how many firefighters were there trying to get it down and thought, I’d better come down now, I think.

The sheep was absolutely fine and not harmed at all, and it was certainly an interesting call-out, it’s not where you’d expect to find a sheep, really quite funny.

“It brightened up our weekend, that’s for sure.”

The sheep was back on the ground about 40 minutes after the fire crew arrived.

Frozen Dead Guy Festival for Sale

The Nederland, Colorado, Chamber of Commerce has been staging the Frozen Dead Guy Festival annually for ten years. The name comes from the corpse of Bredo Morstoel, who died in 1989 and has been stored in dry ice in the area since 1993. The festival, which attracted 15,000 people this year, includes a coffin race, a parade of hearses, and more typical events as well. The festival has become too expensive, and the Chamber is looking for an event company to purchase the festival and stage it.

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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