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The Weird Week in Review

Church Brawl

A Sunday evening brawl at the New Welcome Church in St. Elmo, Alabama, involved at least a dozen people and left one woman with a stab wound. The fight began when the pastor fired the music minister, Simone De Moore. An argument followed over the amount of Moore's final paycheck. Moore then allegedly used a taser on minister Daryl Riley. In the ensuing melee, deacon Harvey Hunt stabbed Moore's mother, Agolia Moore in the arm with a pocket knife. Agolia Moore underwent surgery and 19 stitches to repair the wound. Simone Moore turned himself in to police for the tasering. Hunt is still at large.

Black Widow Hitchhikers Invade UK

Four black widow spiders, which are native to North and Central America, were found in a shipment of jet engines sent from the U.S. to a company in Lincolnshire, England. Employees at TC Power in Barton-upon-Humber were startled when the spiders dropped out of a container. The workers stopped everything and put the deadly spiders in a glass container. TC Power engineers are feeding the black widows and plan to give them to a zoo, where they will stay under glass.

Woman Assaulted With Bratwurst

An argument between two women in Des Moines, Iowa, involved an assault with a bratwurst. The police report says 63-year-old Connie Jones got into an altercation with 31-year-old Tajuana Banks at Jones' home over the childcare of Jones' grandchildren. Apparently, Banks tried to incite a fight by yelling at Jones, and ultimately hit her with the sausage. Police noted the grease stains on Jones’ clothing as evidence. Banks was arrested on a simple assault charge.

Unidentified Flying Creature Diverts Plane

Passengers on a Delta flight from Madison, Wisconsin to Atlanta, Georgia reported a flying creature in the passenger section. One passenger recorded the event on video, while the other passengers waved and chased the animal, believed to be a bat, into the lavatory. The flight was diverted back to Madison, where the passengers were rebooked. A Delta spokesman said the plane was searched, but they never found the bat. The plane then was returned to service.

'Mystery Tree' Survives Wildfire -Again

A 20-foot juniper tree near Sunset Point, Arizona survived a wildfire last week that consumed everything around it. It’s not the first time, either. In fact, the tree is a famous survivor. It's known as the "Mystery Tree" because someone decorates the tree for Christmas and for the 4th of July every year. It also has its own watering system with water drums and pipes -but no one knows who is responsible. The other mystery is that this particular tree has survived several wildfires.

“It’s survived wildfire after wildfire” says ADOT engineer Greg Gentsch. “We’re just happy it’s still here.”

Man Caught Sneaking Into Prison

Officials at Folsom Prison in California say 48-year-old Marvin Lane Ussery was caught trying to scale a fence at the prison. But he's not an inmate; he's on parole. Ussery was trying to enter the prison grounds. He had served time and was paroled in 2009. Officers found no smuggled contraband on Ussery, so his motive for trying to get in is uncertain. He is being held at the Sacramento County Jail.

Movie Script is Assumed Bomb

An unnamed writer in Los Angeles had submitted scripts to a talent agency ad had been rejected or ignored. So he left a script at the unnamed agency's office. The script was on a computer inside a briefcase. When agency employees spotted the unaccompanied briefcase, they called police. The bomb squad responded and detonated the entire briefcase. The screenwriter then made himself known, and is distraught over the loss of his script, which apparently only existed in the hard drive in the destroyed computer. It is assumed that the writer would have preferred to bomb at the box office instead of the talent agency.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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