The Weird Week in Review

Town Erects Statue to Commemorate Beatles' Layover

On September 18, 1964, The Beatles changed planes at a tiny airport in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. The 15 minutes they spent there was the biggest thing that ever happened in the small town. Now, 47 years later, the town has unveiled a statue by artist Danny We called "Abbey Road" commemorating the event. Last Sunday, the unveiling was accompanied by a tribute concert and townspeople sharing memories of that glorious day in 1964.

Evicting A Middle-aged Son

An elderly couple in Mestre, Italy, near Venice, called in lawyers to help get their 41-year-old son to leave home. The unnamed son has a good job but just never left home, preferring to let his mother cook his meals and do his laundry. He has been served with papers giving him ten days to move out or let the courts get involved. Statistics show that 48% of Italians between the ages of 18 and 39 still live with their parents, and more and more elderly parents are seeking help in getting them to move out on their own.

Wombat Bequest Held Up in Probate

The Wombat Awareness Organisation in Australia made the news a couple of years ago when an unnamed American died and bequeathed $8 million to the animal charity. However, they still haven't seen the money, as members of the man's family are contesting the will. Meanwhile, the WAO doesn't have the cash to fight for the intended donation. Brigitte Stevens of the organization says they may never see the money, and that's not the worst part. When the news came of the bequest, small donations dried up because the public thinks the Wombat Awareness Organisation has all the money they need. Meanwhile, the charity is fighting a mystery disease that is killing southern hairy-nosed wombats in Australia.

Man Goes on All-Breast Milk Diet

A man named Curtis is experimenting with an all-breast milk diet since his wife Katie gave birth to his first child nine months ago. Katie donated extra milk after the birth of her first two children, but did not find a needy recipient this time around. Curtis began drinking her milk to settle his stomach, and now subsists on it. Representatives of milk banks say it would be better if Katie's milk went to a baby who needs it. Curtis and Katie were documenting the experiment on the blog Don't Have A Cow, Man, until their story hit the news. The blog has since been removed.

Diabetic Dog Finds Home with Diabetic Twins

Roxy is a Staffordshire bull terrier who suffers from diabetes and requires daily insulin shots. The Scottish SPCA wondered if she would ever be adopted into a permanent home. But Catherine and Graham Hendry didn't consider the shots a burden because their 8-year-old twin daughters, Louise and Katie, also have type 1 diabetes and must take daily shots as well. Their own "Staffy," Buzz, had recently died and they were enchanted by Roxy's ad in the newspaper. The Hendry girls and their new dog now all have their daily injections together as a family.

Plane Crash is Not a Plane Crash

A motorist on Interstate 71 north of Cincinnati, Ohio, called emergency services to report a plane down Wednesday morning. Fire and emergency crews arrived to find a plane, but no crash. The airplane was a prop for a water park!

Spokesman Derek Blevins at The Beach water park in Mason tells WHIO radio the decorative prop has been on the property since May and was never an issue before. But he says it may be more visible from the interstate because falling leaves have reduced the amount of tree cover.

Daughter and Granddaughter Born on Same Day

Peter Lee of Manchester, England, was caught in a situation from the movie Father of the Bride 2, in which Steve Martin had to juggle a wife and a daughter giving birth at the same time -almost. Lee's wife, 32-year-old Ann-Marie Mills, gave birth to the couple's third child on September 9th at 4:29 AM. A few hours later, while Lee and Mills were leaving the hospital with their new daughter Racheal, Lee's 24-year-old daughter Sharon arrived in labor. Her son Bradley was born at 6:20PM -also on September 9th. New grandfather Peter Lee is proud, and says he should have taken bets on the births.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
Original image

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]