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The Weird Week in Review

Passing Her Driving Test While in Labor

Emma French, of West Lothian, Scotland, wasn't due to give birth for another month, but when she woke up August 30th, she found her water had broken. However, French was scheduled to take her driver's license test that day and didn't want to miss it. The 20-year-old showed up for the test with labor pains, but made no mention of it to the examiner. After the 45-minute test, French earned her license and went straight to the hospital, where she soon gave birth to a healthy girl.

"The nurses in the hospital were very confused because I was getting congratulations cards for both my baby and my driving test," French said. "When I told them, they were all in shock. They couldn't believe it."

Suspect Uses Forklift for Getaway

Sean Faulkner of Ross Township, Pennsylvania was arrested for a bizarre theft that "seemed like a good idea at the time." Faulkner was apparently tired of carrying a case of beer, so he took a forklift from a construction site. He drove about a mile to a sandwich shop, where he ordered a Reuben, but fled before paying for it. Ross Township police responded and were able to stop the forklift escape. Faulkner faces theft charges for both the sandwich (a misdemeanor) and the forklift (a felony).

Snake Slithers Out of ATM

An unnamed man went to get some cash from a Caja Madrid bank machine in Llodio, Alava, Spain and saw his cash coming from the slot -plus a snake! Even though the snake lunged toward his hand, he grabbed his money, then summoned the police. A bank manager activated the cash release that had trapped the snake, which was then boxed and taken to an animal shelter. You can see a video of the snake while it was still stuck in the ATM.

Police Car Stops a Plane

Police in Ribeiráo Preto, Brazil, used a car to stop a plane from escaping with a load of stolen electronics. The Federal Police were told of a scheme in which smugglers fly to Paraguay to pick up hot consumer goods and bring them back to Brazil. One police car smashed into the wing and disabled the plane on the runway, leading to the arrest of five people and the seizure of $150,000 in smuggled items. The collision was caught on police video.

Three-eyed Fish Found Near Nuclear Plant

In a scene that was predicted by the TV show The Simpsons, a three-eyed fish was caught near a nuclear power plant. No, it wasn't in Springfield, but in Córdoba, Argentina. The fish was caught in a reservoir in which a nuclear power plant discharges hot water from the reactor's cooling tower. Julian Zmutt, one of the fishermen, said the third eye wasn't noticed right away because they were fishing after dark. Although they were fishing for food, the men plan to have this particular fish analyzed and preserved.

Found Knife May Be Jack the Ripper's Weapon

Welsh surgeon Sir John Williams was Queen Victoria's surgeon and a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murder cases. He moved to Wales after the murders and was never charged. The doctor's great-great-great-great nephew, Tony Williams, is convinced of his guilt and has published a book in which he reveals a surgeon's scalpel that matches the descriptions of the Ripper's handiwork. The six-inch blade was among possessions left behind when Sir John left London for good. Other possessions that remain are three slides with uterine material and a diary with pages missing.

Stolen Phone Rings in Pocket

A man at Hoboken Terminal in New Jersey told police his cell phone was stolen while he was sleeping. He identified a man he suspected of taking it. Police confronted 26-year-old Antonio Santiago, who insisted he did not take the phone. However, when police dialed the man's number, the phone rang from Santiago's coat pocket. A search revealed the phone and three small bags of marijuana. Santiago was charged with theft and possession.

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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
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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