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The Weird Week in Review

Police and Zookeepers Chase Papier Mâché Rhino

The Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Japan, holds annual escaped animal drills for zookeepers and emergency responders. However, there is no way to hold these drills using rare and possibly dangerous zoo animals. This week, the drill was held to train workers in how to deal with a rhinoceros on the loose, using a rhino made of papier mâché with two men underneath to provide the action. The rhino even attacked a zookeeper and had to be pushed away with sticks. Zoo visitors enjoyed the spectacle, which was recorded on video.

Man Adopts Girlfriend, Other Children Sue

John Goodman of Palm Beach, Florida, is facing a wrongful death lawsuit that could ruin him financially. As his assets are facing possible seizure, he legally adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend, Heather Ann Hutchins. She therefore is entitled to a share of a $300 million trust fund set aside for Goodman's children. The trust would be untouchable if Goodman loses the lawsuit. The millionaire did not tell the judge in the adoption case about the lawsuit, nor did he tell his ex-wife or two biological children about the adoption. The two teenagers were surprised to hear the news, and are now suing their father to have the adoption of Hutchins set aside.

Police Officer Chased Himself

In a story that was shared with a monthly police magazine, a police officer in Sussex, England, ended up chasing himself around for twenty minutes. A CCTV (closed circuit TV) operator saw a suspicious man on the streets, and called a plainclothes officer for help. The operator gave directions to the areas where the suspicious man was caught on camera, and the officer always seemed to be close, but could not see any evidence of the man. That is, until they realized that the "suspicious character" was actually the plainclothes officer! The date of the misadventure has been lost in the retelling, as all police officers involved were too busy laughing.

Bomb Squad Finds Schrodinger's Cat Alive

A mysterious box appeared in a parking lot at Erie Community College campus in Amherst, New York, last Friday afternoon. The state police bomb squad responded and took an x-ray of the sealed box, which showed a cat inside! Police turned the cat over to the local SPCA. Gina Browning of the Tonawanda SPCA says the cat is okay.

"The cat was not malnourished, not dehydrated, didn't need any kind of veterinary care. So, it had a happy ending. What concerns me is the people capable of doing this might be capable of doing something worse," Browning said.

Just who would put a cat in a taped up box and leave it in a parking lot remains a mystery at this point.

Capt. Camilleri said, "Right now it doesn't appear there's really much to follow up on. It didn't have any identification on the box or anything like that."

The upside to this is that the cat, named "Truffle," is fine, healthy and back with her owner. Tracking down the person responsible is unlikely, if not impossible.

If found, the persons responsible could be charged with animal cruelty. Even Schrodinger never wanted to try his famous thought experiment on a real cat.

Toddler in Vending Machine Hands Out Toys

Three-year-old Noah Jeffrey wanted a toy so badly that he climbed into a claw machine at a restaurant in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. You've read stories of children in vending machines before, but Noah took the adventure to a new level when he started handing toys out to other children who gathered around the machine! Then his mother saw him. She tried to get Noah to climb back out, but he didn't want to. She finally told him he would have to come down the chute to get a toy, and she helped him get past a barrier on the way. Noah managed to get out of the machine before the fire brigade arrived to rescue him.

Pennsylvania's Purple Squirrel

Percy and Connie Emert of Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, trap squirrels in their yard to protect their bird feeders from raids. They normally release the squirrels elsewhere, but one squirrel stood out from the rest. Connie Emert saw a purple squirrel several times, but her husband did not believe her. Then it was caught in their squirrel trap Sunday and photographed. They relocated the purple squirrel on Tuesday, but those who saw the pictures are trying to figure out where the color came from. One theory is that it fell into a portable toilet and was covered in chemicals. Another is that it ingested too much bromide from molluscs or some other source. Or it could have been dyed. (Thanks, Brendan!)

Don't Bring a Crack Pipe to Drug Court

Stanley Ramos was arrested in Manatee County, Florida, on New Year's Eve for possession of a crack pipe, which a sheriff's deputy said was in plain view in Ramos' backpack. Ramos had a hearing Tuesday in connection with the case at the Manatee County Courthouse. As he was passing through the building's security checkpoint, he was found to be in possession of another crack pipe. Ramos completed his court appearance and was then arrested on a second charge of possessing drug paraphernalia.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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