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The Weird Week in Review

New Species is Really Faux Hawk

A farmer in New Zealand is in trouble for painting hawks. Grant Michael Teahan was found guilty of animal cruelty after a YouTube video showed him capturing a bird in a paint-laden trap. Teahan had apparently been coloring hawks pinkish-red since at least 2009 as a prank. The prank worked, as bird watchers thought they had discovered a new species. Their excitement was crushed when one of the birds was later found dead, hit by a car, and an examination found that it was a common hawk that had been painted. Teahan faces a stiff fine and possible incarceration.

Attachment About Attachments

The Islington Council made a sign warning people not to attach anything to park furniture or trees -and then attached it to a tree at Highbury Fields in north London, England. A neighboring architect, who was annoyed at the many signs posted recently, went to remove the sign and was surprised to see who had posted it on the tree. Soon, others gathered around to laugh at the nonsensical notice. The council soon relocated the notice to a nearby message board. They blamed the mistake on a junior member with good intentions.

Burglars Leave Photographic Evidence

A Frenchman and an Irishman went into a bar in New Zealand, but they weren't supposed to. And they might have gotten away with the crime if they hadn't left their camera with shots of their escapade in it. David Farrell and Nicholas Moinet, traveling vineyard workers, broke into a boat docked on the Opawa River in Blenheim along with some other men and helped themselves to alcohol on December 9th. They took photographs of each other on the boat before they left. However, they neglected to take the camera with them, and investigators found it simple to locate the perpetrators from the images. The two men were ordered to pay a $300 fine to the court and to pay $240 in reparations to the boat's owner.

Drunk Driver Now Suing Victim's Family

David Belniak pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twelve years on three counts of DUI manslaughter after a Christmas Day 2007 traffic accident in Hudson, Florida. Now he's suing the family of the victims, saying the wreck was the fault of the deceased driver. Belniak is asking for $15,000 in damages, despite the fact that he was found to have alcohol, Xanax, and cocaine in his system when the crash occurred. Belniak was charged for driving under the influence in two previous incidences, including one in which a woman died.

Pecan Farmers on Alert for Nut Rustlers

Harvest time in New Mexico means that pecans are tempting for thieves. Farmers are posting guards, and at least one farmer has armed guards on alert around the clock. Sheriff's departments across the region are stepping up patrols near orchards. Pecans are selling for almost $3 a pound in shells, and up to $10 a pound shelled, and some farms have been victims of theft during harvest time in the past, even when pecan prices were lower.

Victim Concerned About Thief's Fitness

Peter Stevens of Cambridge, England, was in his car Friday when a thief opened up the back door and grabbed his laptop.

The 34-year-old runner and IT expert chased him and was surprised when he caught up with the thief after just 225 metres.

Realising the game was up, the puffed-out criminal dropped the laptop, allowing Mr Stevens to pick it up.

Mr Stevens said: “I was appalled by how unfit this guy was. I thought it would take a lot longer to catch up with him. If you are going to go into the snatch-and-run business at least try and get fit or at least play to your strengths and go for something less energetic.”

The thief, who Stevens believes is much younger than himself, has not been caught, but Stevens put his money where his mouth is. He made a donation to a local park to encourage fitness in young people.

Titanic Theme Played as Ship Sank

As the Costa Concordia cruise ship's hull was being ripped open on rocks off the coast of Italy, the Celine Dion song "My Heart Will Go On" was playing in one of the ship's restaurants. Yannick Sgaga, a tourist from Switzerland, told a Geneva newspaper that he and his brother heard the song as the evacuation began. The song became a hit in 1997 as the theme from the movie Titanic. In other strange shipwreck news, some TV reports called the Costa Concordia incident a "real-life Titanic," which gives the impression that they don't understand the Titanic was a real ship that sank nearly 100 years ago.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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!

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iStock
Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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