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The Weird Week in Review

For some reason, this week's weirdest news stories are overwhelmingly about people in "sticky" situations.

Pumpkin Dump Snarls Traffic

A truck lost its load and hundreds of pumpkins were strewn across a freeway near Detroit, Michigan, Wednesday morning. Other vehicles smashed many of the pumpkins, leaving a pulpy, slippery mess. A road maintenance crew had to bring in a snowplow to clear the road. No injuries were reported, but one driver had a smashed windshield. The truck driver was stopped, and may be cited for an unstable load.

Man Stuck Inside Tree

Orange County Deputies in Laguna Hills, California were summoned by residents who heard screams from a creek bed Tuesday morning. They arrived to find an unnamed man stuck inside a tree trunk. Part of his body was underground, as the hole in the hollow tree extended four or five feet below the surrounding landscape. Firefighters with specialized equipment were summoned, and took about 90 minutes to cut the tree safely off the man. Officials at the site could offer no reason why the man climbed into the tree. He was checked for injuries and mental health.

60 Elvises Have Left the Building

An Elvis tribute at the Holiday Inn in Rochester, Kent, England was held Saturday night to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. An unplanned event was added when a malfunctioning smoke machine set off a fire alarm, and the building was evacuated. Hotel guests were surprised to see about 60 Elvis impersonators in full regalia outside with the other evacuees. It caused a bit of confusion, but the fundraiser continued after the all-clear from the fire brigade. About 250 people attended the event.

"Heroin for Sale" Sign Raises Suspicions

You know there's a problem in your neighborhood when you see signs saying "heroin for sale" -with an address! That's what happened in north Portland, Oregon, last week. Portland police served a warrant on the address and found marijuana, heroin, pills, and cash. Six adults were arrested. There was also a teenager in the home at the time of the raid. Many assume that the neighbors, who had been complaining about the house for a year, made the signs, which they presented to the police before the raid.

Man Spends Nine Hours Stuck In Swing

An unnamed 21-year-old man in Vallejo, California, was rescued by firefighters after spending the night stuck in a child's swing. He had accepted a $100 challenge from friends who said that he wouldn't fit into the playground swing. The man fit into it, all right, after he "lubed himself" with laundry detergent. But then he couldn't get back out. The friends left him there alone. A groundskeeper found him the next morning and called the fire department. Firefighters removed the swing from its frame and took him to a hospital, where they cut the swing from his body with a cast cutter. There is no word on whether he ever collected the $100.

Modern-day 'Robinson Crusoe' Saved in White Sea

Sergei Ganyushev, a 25-year-old from Arkhangelsk, Russia, was stranded on an island in the White Sea only 150 kilometers from the Arctic Circle for 16 days. He set out alone on October first to gather seaweed, but his boat sprang a leak. Ganyushev swam to the tiny island of Malaya Sennukha, where he survived on seaweed and rainwater.

He said he gave up looking for passing ships three days before rescue and was about to take his own life when the helicopter flew overhead. When he heard the rotor, he managed to get up and wave down the aircraft.

Curiously, no one had reported Sergei missing. The helicopter was looking for survivors from another seafaring incident, in which a motorboat with a monk and a worker from a nearby Orthodox Christian monastery sank in the vicinity of the archipelago last Thursday.

The monk was found dead, but the search continues for his companion. Ganyushev was treated for hypothermia and malnutrition.

Man Reports 'Other Woman' as Burglar

He thought fast, but he didn't think well. Kevin Gaynor of Colorado Springs, Colorado, met a woman on Craigslist and invited her to his home around 3AM Wednesday. While she was there, Gaynor's girlfriend arrived home unexpectedly. The 24-year-old Gaynor quickly called police to report the presence of the other woman as a burglary in progress! The ruse didn't last long, and Gaynor was cited on suspicion of false reporting.

Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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