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The Weird Week in Review

Bear Saves Man from Mountain Lion

Robert Biggs was hiking in Bean Soup Flats, California, on Monday morning when he had a close encounter with Mother Nature. The 69-year-old observed a mother bear with her cub, but did not approach them. As he walked away, a mountain lion jumped on him, grabbing him by the backpack. Biggs fought back with a rock pick. The cougar screamed but did not let go. Then the mother bear showed up and attacked the cat! The two animals fought for a short time and then ran away in opposite directions. Biggs' arm was scratched, bruised, and bitten, but he opted not to seek medical attention.

Thief Steals Clothing, Wears Clothing

A man in East London, South Africa, knocked on the door of a home and asked if they had any work he could do. The couple who lived there were astonished to see what the man was wearing -their clothes!

He was decked out in the resident's shoes, socks, belt, a pair of trousers and one of his fiancee's blouses.

"When I opened the door I was surprised because he was wearing our clothing," said the resident, who asked not to be named.

The man said he immediately went to the back garden and noticed their storeroom had been looted.

The couple held the man for police for 45 minutes, but he escaped before they arrived. The thief was later caught by security guards.

Swan Terrorizes River Traffic

A section of the Grand Union Canal in Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire, England is unusable to humans for the time being, because a swan named Tyson has claimed it for his own. Tyson is a large swan with an eight-foot wingspan and has attacked canoeists, capsized kayakers, and even swooped down on pedestrians on the shore. The territorial swan considers a two-mile stretch of the canal as his personal territory. Officials plan to capture the bird and relocate him about 50 miles away for the safety of the people who use the waterway.

Texting and Eating Leads to Crash

Some advice from the police: don't text while driving, don't eat while driving, and don't steal vehicles. A pickup truck left the road and went into a ditch, plowed through some logs and lawns, and then crashed into a house in Kennewick, Washington on Wednesday. The truck had been stolen from nearby Richland. The homeowner and his neighbors saw the driver flee the scene. Soon afterward, a Benton County sheriff's deputy arrested 32-year-old Jeromy Kirkendall on suspicion of possessing stolen property. Kennewick police say that Kirkendall had been eating and texting while driving, which is thought to have contributed to the accident.

Dead Snake Bites Man

A 41-year-old homeless man in Mobile, Alabama was treated with antivenom after he was bitten by a decapitated cottonmouth. A friend had seen the snake in a creek and cut its head off with a machete. The unnamed victim was playing with the severed head and stuck his finger in the snake's mouth. By reflex, the snake head bit down on the finger. The man first refused medical treatment, but after he started showing symptoms of venom poisoning, he was taken to USA Medical Center, treated, and released.

Lost Parrot Finds Owner at School

Shannon Underhill of Laleston, Wales, was upset when her African Grey parrot, Scarlet, escaped from her cage last Saturday. The family thought they'd seen the last of the bird. On Monday, 9-year-old Shannon went to school as usual, a quarter of a mile away from home. She was out on the playground during lunch break when Scarlet flew down and landed on her shoulder!

When a teacher approached Shannon in the playground following Scarlet's arrival, the bird squawked: "Do you want a kiss?"

The school then called Shannon's father, Mark, and four-year-old Scarlet greeted him with the words "Hello daddy".

Meth Lab Operator Camped in Stranger's Yard

A homeowner in Live Oak, Florida, called police to report a stranger had pulled a camper into their yard and was living there without permission. Officers entered the camper and found apparatus for manufacturing methamphetamine. They woke and arrested 24-year-old Andrew James Britt on charges of manufacture and possession of drugs. Britt later admitted to both camping without permission and manufacturing meth.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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!

Original image
iStock
Animals
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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]

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