The Weird Week in Review

Police Chase Ends as Car Lands on Sleeping Man

Police in Hamden, Connecticut, tried to pull over an SUV for outstanding violations after midnight Tuesday, but were instead led on a five-mile chase. The driver sped through a college campus and into the town of New Haven. Police laid "stop sticks," but the driver avoided them. The car finally stopped when it slammed into a house, landing on top of 34-year-old Michael Sweat, who was asleep in his bed. The suspect fled the scene. Paramedics responded and an engineering team arrived to prop up the house while Sweat was extracted from under the car, which took about an hour. Sweat was taken to the hospital suffering from burns, but his injuries are not life-threatening.

64-year-old Lard Deemed Fit to Eat

Hans Feldmeier received a can of lard from supplies distributed to Germans by the United States after World War II. He stashed it away and never opened the can. Feldmeier, who lives in Warnemünde, Germany, near the Baltic Sea, recently found the can and took it to authorities to see if it was still edible. The State Office for Agricultural, Fisheries and Food Security declared it fit for human consumption, although it had lost some consistency and taste. Feldmeier was delighted to hear of the unusually successful preservation, but when he requested his can back from the agency, they gave it back to him empty.

Holy Mackerel!

A truck full of fish overturned and dumped its load into Northern Ireland farmer Gordon Flinn's field on Thursday. The several tonnes of mackerel were piled two feet deep in places. The driver of the truck was taken to the hospital, but was not seriously injured and was able to return to the scene. The truck was removed and the road opened later that night, but the Flinns may have to put up with a fishy smell for some time.

Vermont Inmate Slips Pig into Police Decal

Inmates at a Vermont prison supply decals and other print materials to the state's police force. That includes the state police crest that is attached to official vehicles. A year after new decals were installed on 30 cruisers, it was discovered that the official crest, which depicts a cow on a pastoral hill, now includes a pig. The pig image is hidden in the cow's spots. Someone in the prison's print shop had changed the official design. The prank is under investigation.

Glacier Thief Arrested in Chile

Police in Chile have arrested an unnamed man who was driving a truck containing five tonnes of ice. The ice was allegedly stolen from the Jorge Montt glacier and was intended to be sold as designer ice for cocktails in upscale bars and restaurants. The value of the ice was placed at £3,900, but police are also considering adding charges of violating a national monument. The glacier is part of the Bernardo O'Higgins National Park, and is already endangered, retreating by around half a mile every year.

Man Accidentally Joins Antarctic Expedition

The planned expedition led by Norwegian Jarle Andhoy was already shady, and now there's an unwilling member along for the ride. The yacht took off in a hurry as immigration officials arrived to investigate Andhoy at an Auckland harbor, while a local mechanic was on board repairing an anchor on the 52-foot boat Nilaya.

Mr Andhoy and three crew members have embarked on an unpermitted voyage to Antarctica's Ross Sea, in defiance of both the Norwegian and New Zealand governments.

A previous trip he made to Antarctica almost a year ago ended in disaster when his yacht Berserk sank in a fierce storm and three men died.

Declaring himself "a Viking", the Norwegian adventurer says he is seeking the wreckage of the Berserk, which was serving as a supply ship for an attempt to reach the South Pole on quad bikes.

Authorities are looking for the Nilaya, which Andhoy said does not have a locator beacon. It is not thought to have adequate supplies for an extra crew member, either.

World's Smallest Woman is Big on Politics

Jyoti Amge was known as the world's smallest teenager until she turned 18, and is now certified by Guinness as the world's smallest woman. Amge is 30 inches tall and weighs only 12 pounds. A major celebrity in India, Amge made news this week when she endorsed candidates of the right wing Maharashtra Navnirman Sena party in Mumbai. She says she hopes her size doesn't overshadow her political views, but her size is what draws considerable crowds to appearances she makes for the candidates.

Indonesian Twins Reunited 29 Years Later in Sweden

Emilie Falk and Lin Backman were born in Indonesia in 1983 and adopted by two different families from Sweden, who were not informed they were twins. They were told about each other by a taxi driver, and the families met. But as the girls did not look alike and had different fathers listed on their papers, the parents decided they were not related after all and lost touch over the years. When Falk recently got married, she felt a renewed interest in the old story. She tracked down Backman, who lived only 40 kilometers away. Both are now teachers and both had gotten married on the same date one year apart. DNA tests revealed that they are, indeed, fraternal twins.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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