The Weird Week in Review

Drunken Moose Hides Swing Set in Tree

A family in Storebro, Sweden arrived home one night to find evidence of a wildlife party. Apples were strewn over the backyard, and the children's swing set was missing. Sweden has a problem with moose (called elk in Europe) this time of year, because the animals eat fermented apples and become drunk. The homeowner called police, who brought in a hunter to find the inebriated moose. The perpetrator was never located, but the family's swing set was eventually found in the woods, propped up in a tree about 500 feet from its original spot.

Booked Hotel is 12,000 Miles Away

South Africans Michael and Sunette Adendorff went to New Zealand, but had trouble finding the Majestic Hotel, where they had made reservations. They inquired at a chemist's shop for help, but found there is no hotel at all in the town of Eastbourne. Shop assistant Linda Burke looked at their paperwork and realized the hotel they wanted was on the other side of the globe! The internet reservations were for the Majestic Hotel in Eastbourne, Sussex, England instead of Eastbourne, New Zealand. Burke looked for accommodations for the couple, but as all the bed and breakfasts were full, she invited them to stay at her home. The Adendorffs were unable to get a refund on the hotel due to short notice, but they enjoyed their stay in the small New Zealand town.

Eel Removed from Man's Bladder

Warning: this story may be painful to read. A man from Honghu, Hubei province, China went to a spa to swim with eels, a treatment that is supposed to rejuvenate the skin as the eels nibble on dead skin cells. Instead, one of the eels slithered up Zhang Nan's urethra! Zhang tried to catch it, but the slippery animal disappeared into his penis. The man rushed himself to a hospital, where surgeons removed a dead 6-inch eel from his bladder. The operation lasted three hours.

Slug Stops Traffic

How does a common garden slug bring traffic to a standstill? It happened in Darlington, England last Friday morning. Traffic lights went out and a contractor was brought in to repair the control box. They fund a slug had gotten into the controls and short-circuited them. Councillor Chris McEwan said he'd received many complaints about the traffic lights.

"A slug was certainly the last thing I was expecting to have caused the problem.

“We do not know how long the slug had been there.

Unfortunately, it was dead by the time we found it, so we were unable to question it.

“Sadly, you just can’t legislate for a rogue slug trying to take out Darlington’s traffic system.”

The control box will be sealed to keep other critters out.

Oversized Man Sues White Castle for Undersized Seats

Martin Kessman of Nanuet, New York filed suit against the local White Castle outlet after two years of complaints about the size of their dining booths. Kessman weighs 290 pounds, and has a hard time fitting between the seats and the table. The seats are stationary and cannot be adjusted by the customers. Kessman said his complaints were answered with three “very condescending letters" and food coupons. He said the company sent him plans to change the seats, which never happened.

Colorado Cat Found Years Later in NYC

Chris and Jamie Squires lived in Broomfield, Colorado with their children and a cat named Willow. When Willow went missing, they posted notices, but eventually figured the cat had been killed by coyotes. That was in late 2006 or early 2007. The Squires later moved to Boulder. On Wednesday, they got a call from the company that had implanted a microchip in their cat years earlier. Willow had been found in New York City! Willow, picked up on 20th street and taken to a shelter where her microchip was scanned, appears healthy, but there is no clue how she got to New York or where she has been for the past five years. The cat is staying with a foster family in New York until travel can be arranged.

Clean Your Plate or Else

A restaurant in Dammam, Saudi Arabia has instituted a new policy that fines people if they order more than they can eat. Fahad Al Anezi, owner of the Marmar Restaurant, says that some customers order far more than necessary to impress their guests and boost their prestige, leading to wasted food. The amount of the fine will be decided according to what's left over. He says the new idea was met with approval by Saudis.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]