CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Secret Service Aids White House Invaders

A family of ducks walked through the lawn of the White House on Wednesday, though they needed some help doing it. A mother duck broached the perimeter, but the ducklings following her struggled to mount the concrete barrier. Secret Service agents came to the rescue, and lifted the ducklings through a fence. The agents received a round of applause from tourists watching the incident. Apparently, White House security determined the ducklings and their mother were no threat. The caper was captured on video.

Third-grader Gets Jury Duty Notice

Nine-year-old Jacob Clark of South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, received a notice that he was to report to the Orleans District Court on April 18 for jury duty. When his grandmother explained what that meant, Jacob became worried and didn't want to go. Jacob's father, Robby Clark called the jury commission and found that somewhere along the line, Jacob's birth year was listed in official documents as 1982 instead of 2002. The third-grader was relieved to learn he doesn't have to serve this year.

Promotion Leads to Massive Bomb Scare

They obviously did not recall the colossal Mooninite caper of 2007. Convar Deutschland, a German computer company, sent out advertising packages for their data-recovery service to prospective clients in the form of what appeared to be time bombs.

Convar Deutschland thought they had cooked up an exciting way to attract new clients, when they began gluing hard drives to alarm clocks and sending them to companies with a note reading, “Your time is running out.”

They sent out a total of 40 “time bombs” to businesses, shops, a handful of embassies and even the offices of a newspaper group.

But instead of drumming up customers, the stunt caused mayhem as terrified recipients called the police and prompted building evacuations, Berlin paper Tagesspiegel reported on Friday.

The company may have to pay the police for expenses incurred.

Fluorescent Millipedes Discovered on Alcatraz

Scientists using black lights to trace dyed rat bait on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco have found something completely unrelated -and unexpected. They discovered millipedes that glow under black light beams. There are known bioluminescent millipede species in California, but the glowing mechanism of the Alcatraz millipedes appears to be different. Scientists are studying them to determine whether they are a new subspecies. And to answer your question, yes, they isolated a sample of the millipedes to make sure they weren't glowing because they had eaten the rat bait.

Woman Cheats Drug Test; Fails

Mischelle Lindy Salzgeber, of Dade City, Florida, had to undergo a drug test because she is on probation. Knowing she would fail, Salzgeber had a plan to use someone else's urine instead of her own. As she went through a full-body scan, an x-ray revealed she had a small bottle hidden in her vagina. Salzgeber was questioned and eventually admitted that she had smuggled urine in the bottle for her drug test, which had already taken place. However, even if she hadn't been caught, she would have failed the drug test, because the smuggled urine was not the clean sample she though it was!

Pet Lizard Undergoing Chemotherapy

Lizzie Griffiths, of Purley, Greater London, England, adopted George the bearded dragon from a shelter a year ago despite the fact that he was ill from a chest infection. She nursed the lizard back to health, but then he developed a tumor on his face. Griffiths had the cancer removed twice, but it came back again. Now the lizard is getting chemotherapy treatment -the first bearded dragon to have such treatment in the UK. Griffiths has spent £3,000 on veterinary services so far -and must drive George 200 miles every day for his appointments. Griffiths doesn't mind the expense, because she is devoted to her dragon.

UFO Fragment Lands in Siberia

An unidentified piece of metal fell from the sky over Siberia, according to Russian media reports. Locals from the village of Otradnesnky dragged the U-shaped metal fragment from the forest where it was found. Authorities confiscated the object soon after. A representative of the Russian space agency says the metal did not come from a rocket or missile. Experts assured villagers that the object is not radioactive. There is speculation that it may be a piece of a rocket from a launch from Kazakhstan.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
iStock
Animals
arrow
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image
iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES