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The Weird Week in Review

Five Stabbed at Get-out-of-jail Party

A welcome home party for an unnamed teenager released from juvenile detention in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, turned ugly Saturday night. Police responded to reports of gunshots and found a street brawl had erupted. Officers took two people with stab wounds to the hospital, and later found that three others had suffered stab wounds and went to the hospital on their own. In all, four adults and one 17-year-old were wounded. The guest of honor was not among them. No charges have been filed so far, the the investigation is continuing.

Brother-in-law Agrees to Serve Life Sentence

Raj Kumar was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. But 18 months later, Kumar's partner-in-crime notified prison authorities that Kumar was not serving his sentence. Instead, Kumar's brother-in-law Kiran Singh was doing the time in his place! Singh had reported to prison wearing Kumar's name tattooed on his arm to prove identity to prison officials. Singh said that Kumar had convinced him to serve the sentence so Kumar could take care of his five unmarried sisters. Singh's family was unaware of the ruse and thought he had gone missing. After the scheme was uncovered, Kumar was taken into custody and Singh is now charged with fraud.

Alchemy Experiment Leads to Arrest

Paul Moran of Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, has been sentenced to three months in jail for a bizarre incident in July. A fire brigade responded to a blaze at Moran's apartment building that caused £3,000 worth of damage. The fire began when Moran tried to turn his own feces into gold by putting it on an electric heater. The judge in the case said,

“It was an interesting experiment to fulfil the alchemist’s dream, but wasn’t going to succeed.”

The court noted that Moran is now on anti-psychotic drugs and is not considered to be dangerous.

Sesame Street YouTube Channel Hacked with Porn

Hackers took control of the Sesame Street YouTube channel for a time last weekend. For about 20 minutes, graphic pornography replaced the kid-friendly videos. YouTube took the entire channel down when the incident was discovered, and officials from Sesame Street issued an apology to any children who were accidentally exposed to the raunchy videos. The channel remained down for a day until the original content could be restored.

100-pound Scrotum

Wesley Warren Jr. began suffering from a swelled scrotum three years ago. Now it has ballooned to over 100 pounds, leaving him unable to work and restricting his movements. Doctors are at a loss to explain why it happened, and the local hospital in Las Vegas is pessimistic about surgery. Physicians at UCLA think they can reduce his growth while saving his genitals, but Warren's state medical insurance will not pay for surgery in California. That's why Warren recently decided to go public, hoping that donations from the public, or from a wealthy sponsor, can pay for the surgery.

$201,000 Cell Phone Bill

Celina Aarons of Miami, Florida, received a bill from T-Mobile for her monthly phone service and got a shock: it was $201,000! Her phone service usually runs at $175 a month. It wasn't a mistake or a computer glitch; all the charges were legitimate. Aarons has two deaf brothers included in her family phone service plan. They use text messaging and data that is included as part of the monthly deal.

But her brothers spent two weeks in Canada and Aarons never changed to an international plan. Her brothers sent over 2,000 texts and also downloaded videos, sometimes racking up $2,000 in data charges.

When Aarons read the bill -- all 43 pages of it -- she realized she owed $201,005.44.

After the initial shock, Aaarons spoke with T-Mobile, and they agreed to lower her bill to $2,500 and gave her six months to pay.

First Image of a Planet Being Born

Astronomers have revealed an image thought to be the first ever picture of a planet in the process of forming. The planet is now called LkCa 15b. The image was taken by the huge Keck telescope in Hawaii in infrared wavelengths so as to block out the interference from the planet's nearby star. The star itself is only 2 million years old, practically a newborn in astronomical terms. The new planet and its star are about 450 light years away from us.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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
Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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