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The Weird Week in Review

Drunk Driver Speeds in Wrong Direction

Victims of near-misses say it was a miracle that no one was hurt when a woman drove 18 miles north in the southbound lane of Washington State's I-5 expressway. Pamela Drawsby of Olympia, Washington, was arrested after police set a spike strip to stop her vehicle. She was observed driving up to 100 miles per hour at 2AM -against all oncoming traffic. Amazingly, there were no collisions as other drivers swerved to avoid the northbound vehicle. The 60-year-old Drawsby was found to be intoxicated on a combination of alcohol and prescription medication.

Sweden's Silliest Place Names

We've read about strange and sometimes embarrassing place names in Britain and the U.S., but English-speaking tourists often don't know when a place name in another language is, shall we say, unusual. Thanks to the English-language site The Local, we have translations for the strangest-named places in Sweden.

People outside Uppsala, for example, can take a stroll in the terrain of Djupröven (Deep Arse), and outside Gothenburg one can enjoy a swim in any of the Yellow, Small or Big Arse lakes (Gula Röven, Lilla Röven, Stora Röven).

A somewhat cuter name but still perhaps not the first pick to put on your resumé, is Kattsjärten in Värmland. The Local's translation for this (hopefully) unusual name is Cat's Bottom.

But that's just the beginning. Check out Sex Swamp, Snot Bog, and more.

Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop Arrested

A 30-year-old man in Madison, Wisconsin found a way to get his 15 minutes of fame. Jeffrey Drew Wilschke had legally changed his name in October to Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop. That makes a great headline in itself, but Zopittybop-Bop-Bop was arrested last Thursday after neighbors complained of "excessive drug use." Police recorded quite a few charges, including carrying a concealed weapon, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana, and probation violations. When Zopittybop-Bop-Bop was taken into custody, he told police he would "get even with them."

Couple Married for 86 Years

Karam and Kartari Chand of Bradford, England, recently celebrated their 86th wedding anniversary. They married when Kartari was just 13 and Karam was 20. According to passport information, Karam is now 106 years old and his wife is 99. They married in 1925, and now believe they could be the longest-married couple in the United Kingdom. The couple lives with one of their eight children. The Chands also have 27 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren.

Don't Pay Your Taxes, Get "Dumped"

Authorities in Patna, the capital of Bihar state in India, thought they had found an appropriate punishment for a shop owner who owed back taxes. They sent three truckloads of garbage to be dumped in front of Avinash Kumar's store! Kumar owed the local government 164,000 rupees ($3,175). Neighboring business owners complained about the smell, and municipal workers later retrieved the garbage. After the public outcry, city officials say they do not intend to use this method of punishment again.

New Clue in Glenn Miller's Disappearance

As a young man in the 1940s, Richard Anderton watched planes as a hobby. In small notebooks, he jotted down details of all the planes he observed overhead Woodley, Reading, England, at the airfield where he worked. A recently-discovered entry shows that Anderton had observed the plane that carried bandleader Glenn Miller on December 15, 1944, on a flight to France from Bedfordshire when it disappeared. No one knows what happened to the plane to this day, but Atherton's notebook confirms part of the path it took.

It was not until his brother, 77-year-old Sylvan Anderton, brought the books into the BBC's Antiques Roadshow TV programme 67 years later that the entry came to light.

"I'd had them for about 28 years and really didn't do anything about it," said Mr Anderton, who grew up in Reading but now lives in Bideford, Devon.

"I knew there was a connection because he'd cut out an article from the Daily Express in 1969 about Glenn Miller's disappearance and he'd put it in the pages in the notebook for 15 December 1944."

The Glenn Miller Archive at Colorado University has confirmed the new information, and will include it in their official report.

Man Rescued from Sewer Faces More Trouble

An unnamed man in the town of Montmélian, France, dropped his wallet into a sewer opening in a parking garage and went to retrieve it. He then became stuck, with his head in the pipe and his legs sticking out of the manhole. The man spent the entire night like that until a passer-by called emergency services in the morning. After he was rescued, police figured out what he was doing when it happened. The man didn't have the chance to hide the fact that he had been draining the oil from his car into the the sewer. This is a form of pollution that could bring a fine of up to €76,000 ($97,000) and two years in prison.

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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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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