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The Weird Week in Review

Pepsi's Scary Defense

Ronald Ball of Illinois filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo in 2009, claiming he found a mouse in a can of Mountain Dew after taking a drink. Ball claims that he sent the mouse to the soft drink company and that they destroyed it. In their defense, Pepsi says that a mouse carcass would not exist in that form after being sealed in a can of Mountain Dew. An expert claims that the acid in the drink would cause a mouse to transform into a 'jelly-like' substance. One has to wonder if a defense against the lawsuit is worth planting that picture in customers' minds.

...But the Cat Came Back

Plucky Andrea the stray cat used up a couple of her nine lives, but would not succumb to the animal shelter's two attempts to euthanize her. The cat was picked up and taken to West Valley City's animal shelter in Utah. When she was not adopted within a month, the shelter sent her to a gas chamber, but she survived. A second gassing left her appearing to be dead, so the staff put her body in a plastic bag in a cooler. Later, she was discovered to have vomited and was checked for signs of life. When Andrea woke up, they decided not to try again. The cat was transferred to the Community Animal Welfare Society. Andrea has since been adopted, and is settling well into her new home.

Car Lands on Roof

In a scene you would expect from an action movie (or a comedy), a stolen car landed on the roof of a house in Fresno, California. Police say the car was going too fast and hit a rock and a tree stump, which launched it into the air and onto the roof. The driver of the car fled the scene and was arrested soon after at his girlfriend's home. There were people in the house when the car landed on it, but no one was seriously injured. A towing company had to use a crane to remove the vehicle.

Rare Coin Collection Stolen for Change

Police in Multnomah County, Oregon, are looking for Dan Johnson, Jr. in connection with a burglary at his father's home. The burglar took silver, jewelry, and a valuable rare coin collection from a safe. The rare coins were recovered from a change machine, where the perpetrators had dumped them to get about $450.

"The obvious answer that the crooks were idiots, just simply an idiot," said Dan Johnson, Sr. "To not know the value of what they had taken, just to get pocket change for it. Just really a stupid person. Makes me feel good he was a stupid person and didn't realize what he had."

The coin machine rejected the 500 silver quarters, which were redeemed at a bank. The bank is returning the coins to the elder Johnson. Two other suspects have already been arrested in the case.

iPad Accepted in Lieu of Passport

Martin Reisch was able to enter the U.S. from Canada without his passport by presenting a scanned image of it on his iPad. And no one even bothered to yell "Photoshop!" Reisch reached the border crossing before realizing he forgot his passport, but he had scanned it into his computer. Instead of making the two-hour trip back home, Reisch showed the scan to the border officer along with his driver's license. The "mildly annoyed" border guard took the iPad into the border hut for about five minutes, then handed it back to Reisch and wished him a Merry Christmas. Reisch traveled to the U.S. to deliver some Christmas gifts, and was able to cross back into Canada using the same scan of his passport.

15-pound Babies Not That Rare in Minnesota

Michael Robert Calistro-Gomulak was born on September 28th in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. He weighed 15 pounds, 7 ounces, when he was delivered by caesarian section one week early. But the large boy did not break a state record: at least three babies born in the state during the 1990s weighed more. The largest was 16 pounds, 7 ounces! Little Michael has another legacy, though -he was named after his grandfather, who saved his wife's life while mortally injured after their car was hit by a drunk driver.

Flying Shark Startles Pilot

An airline pilot preparing to descend to Christchurch International Airport in New Zealand reported a sighting of a shark at several thousand feet! The fish was later identified as an Air Swimmer, an inflatable remote-control shark that is designed to be used indoors only.

A spokeswoman for air traffic control company Airways, Monica Davis, said a pilot had reported the shark and its location about nine kilometres from the airport at 2pm on December 26.

"We advised subsequent traffic of its location, but no-one else reported seeing it."

It was not yet known whether the sighting would be formally logged as an air-safety incident, she said.

The shark's altitude and how close it came to the plane were unclear, Davis said.

Robber Hands Gun to Cashier by Mistake

A man tried to rob the Halifax bank in London, England, but was undone by his own confusion. He entered the bank and demanded £700,000 from a teller. He then apparently intended to hand over a bag to put the money in, but instead handed the cashier his gun. Suddenly realizing what he had done, the robber panicked, grabbed his gun back, and fled the scene on a bank employee's bicycle. CCTV cameras recorded the escape. Police have released pictures and are asking the public to help identify the perpetrator.

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
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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