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The Weird Week in Review

Whale Takes Australian Couple On Wild Boat Ride

Glenn Wilson and Nerida Higgins were enjoying a cruise on their yacht off the coast of Queensland, Australia, when a humpback whale grabbed their anchor rope and took off, dragging the boat behind it. The ride lasted 15 minutes, then a second humpback whale took over the rope and dragged the boat. That's when the couple decided to cut the anchor line. They had already called the coast guard and emergency services, but the strange story was so unbelievable that authorities thought they were drunk. However, Higgins captured the adventure on video.

Seattle Superhero Phoenix Jones Arrested

The masked man known around Seattle as "superhero" Phoenix Jones was arrested Sunday morning for assault. Ben Fodor, a secret identity that was first revealed only after the arrest, is charged with pepper-spraying a group of people leaving a nightclub. Fodor says he used the pepper spray to break up a fight. The 23-year-old is out on bail, and formal charges have not been filed -yet. Other real world superheroes said Phoenix Jones has a history of going too far as a civilian crime fighter.

"I felt it was a long time coming, and sadly," said a man who, by day, is a Seattle-area consultant, by night, a Real Life Superhero calling himself Mr. Ravenblade. "I don't have anything against [Fodor], but he's done a lot of things that are against the core guidelines of the community and superhero status."

Fodor says he will resume his nighttime patrols in Seattle.

Marathon Runner Rides the Bus Into Third Place

Rob Sloan ran in the Salomon Kielder Marathon in Kielder, Northumberland, England, last Sunday. Or, around 20 miles of the 26.2 mile race. That's where he quit and boarded a bus. As the bus approached the finish line, Sloan decided to rejoin the race, and won a third-place medal. However, the next few racers wondered why they never saw Sloan pass them. A day later, Sloan admitted that he had quit the race, and the third place award then went to Steven Cairns of Peebles, Scotland, who ran all 26 miles.

Saddam Hussein Look-alike Says He Was Kidnapped by Porn Gang

Mohamed Bishr of Alexandria, Egypt, bears a striking resemblance to erstwhile Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Bishr told a local newspaper that after turning down a $330,000 offer to star as Hussein in a porn video, he received threatening phone calls urging him to accept the offer. Then on Sunday, Bishr said, three men abducted him with the intent to force his participation. The plot fell apart when the three men began arguing. They then threw Bishr out of the vehicle he was held in. Bishr told his story from a hospital, where he is recovering from the injuries he sustained as he was tossed from the van.

Smugglers Use Honeybees as Defense

Police stopped a truck suspected of containing smuggled cigarettes in Adana, Turkey. The truck was loaded with beehives. When confronted, the suspects released a swarm of bees which attacked the officers. Officials in beekeeping gear were summoned, and they found 32,500 packs of contraband cigarettes among the beehives in the truck. Three men were arrested: the truck driver and two beekeepers who accompanied him.

9 Men Rescue Moose Trapped In Pool

George Trapotsis of Manchester, New Hampshire found a bull moose in his backyard pool Friday night.

“This train-like noise came through the fence and dove right into the pool,” said Trapotsis.

The moose fell right through the pool cover, according to Trapotsis. "He tore the cover, got entangled and just couldn't move," Trapotsis said. Trapotsis said his first concern was keeping the animal alive and freeing it from the cover.

At about midnight the rescue of the moose was underway. With a rope attached to the moose, nine men pulled the animal out of the water.

“I didn’t get trained on how to do this, that’s for sure,” said Jack Pushee of New Hampshire Fish and Game. “There’s a first for everything.”

The moose then wandered off into the woods, apparently unharmed.

Family Lost In Corn Maze Calls 911

An unnamed family became disoriented while wandering a corn maze in Danvers, Massachusetts, and called 911 for help when skies began to darken. The couple said their young son was getting upset and they were worried about their newborn baby as well. Officers responded to the Connors Farm and found the family within minutes. They were about 25 feet from the maze exit. The owner of the farm says this has never happened before, as visitors who become lost normally push their way through the corn toward the sounds coming from the nearby highway. He offered the family free tickets for a return visit, which they declined.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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!

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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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