CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Bear-safety Lecture Interrupted by Bear

Last Friday, Yellowstone National Park bear biologist Kerry Gunther and park spokesman Dan Hottle were being filmed by a CNN news crew about bear safety. While recording the segment, they spotted a hiker and a black bear nearby. The bear was walking toward the edge of the water, and the frightened hiker jumped into the water. A group of kayakers helped the hiker, Erin Prophet, back to land. The bear was minding its own business and did not appear to pose a threat. Gunther said the incident was only memorable because the news crew was present.

North Dakota May Not be a State

Looking at the fine print, 82-year-old John Rolczynski of Grand Forks, North Dakota found evidence that North Dakota might not legally be one of the United States. When the state was founded in 1889, the state constitution did not conform to federal requirements, which say the governor and other officials must take an oath of office. Rolczynski pointed out the mistake 16 years ago, and finally the matter may be resolved, as State Senator Tim Mathern has introduced a bill to correct the state constitution. The matter will be put to North Dakota voters in the spring.

Driver Wore Colander for License Photo

Citing religious reasons, Niko Alm demanded the right to wear a colander on his head for his driver's license photo in Vienna, Austria. He is a pastafarian, or a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. He was granted his request by licensing officials -but that doesn't mean pastafarianism is recognized as an official religion by the state. A police spokesman said that the pasta strainer Alm wore on his head did not violate any license rules, which merely state that a driver's whole face must be clearly visible in the photo. Therefore, a religious exemption for the headgear was not necessary.

Owl Leaves Perfect Print on Window

Sally Arnold of Kendal, Cumbria, UK, found an almost-perfect picture of an owl imprinted on her home's picture window. But the owl itself was nowhere to be found.

The bird had apparently crashed into the window of Sally Arnold's Kendal home, leaving the bizarre image - complete with eyes, beak and feathers.

Experts said the silhouette was left by the bird's "powder down" - a substance protecting growing feathers.

The detailed picture leaves the "impression" that the crash was pretty hard, but the bird left no feathers behind, and so was assumed to have flown away on its own.

Man Reports Marijuana Theft to Police

Twenty-year-old Max Fleck called Chicago police and reported that he had been robbed by three men who entered his apartment. He said the men hit him and his 19-year-old friend and left with two pounds of marijuana and a laptop computer. One of the intruders had been to the apartment earlier that evening. When police arrived at the crime scene, they found more narcotics and arrested Fleck on two counts of possession of a controlled substance and two counts of marijuana possession.

Town Sings Songs to Soothe Angry Elves

Townspeople in Bolungarvik, Iceland were upset that a new tunnel and avalanche barrier required the use of dynamite. They believed the explosions bothered the "hidden folk and elves" who subsequently began playing pranks such as rolling rocks down the hills. Seers asked Bolungarvik officials to apologize to the unseen spirits, but they refused. So, to placate the hidden people, who were never consulted about the construction, a ceremony was held and songs were sung. Heavy machinery was shut off during the rites, then crews went back to work on the avalanche barrier afterward.

Hiring Strippers for Funerals

One entertainment option for funerals in Taiwan is the Electric Flower Car, a lighted stage on which young women will strip to their underwear. The show is more common in rural areas, and the performers also sing for the mourners and onlookers. Reasons given for the strippers vary, from pleasing the lower gods or distracting ghosts to having a funeral that the deceased would have enjoyed.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
arrow
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES