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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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May 23, 2017
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