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The Weird Week in Review

Naked Ride Through a Car Wash

Three men in Abbotsford, British Columbia, decided to get themselves clean by taking a ride through a car wash. Naked. In a shopping cart. The highly intoxicated 20-year-olds had apparently selected a high-pressure wash at the automated car wash. Neighbors called police when they heard the screaming. Abbotsford police responded, and arrived to find the men putting their clothes back on. Police gave them a warning and sent them home.

Snake on a Plane

Braden Blennerhassett took off in a twin-engine plane from Darwin, Australia, on Tuesday. Not long afterward, the pilot saw a snake slither out from under the plane's dashboard. Blennerhassett calmly notified air traffic control, and turned the cargo plane around to return to the airport. A snake wrangler was called in to find the snake, which had returned to hiding. No snake was found, and airline authorities believed it escaped from the plane during the search. The species was not determined.

Only Good Driver on the Planet Crashes

Before you put a sticker on your car, consider the worst thing that could possibly happen -an auto accident. And then consider that if you make the news, people will read your bumper sticker. It happened in Manhattan. A Nissan crashed through a guard rail on the FDR drive and landed upside-down. The accident made the news because of the bumper sticker on the car, which read, “Why am I the only one on the planet who knows how to drive?” The driver was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Romanian ATMs Baffle Customers

One street in the city of Timisoara, Romania, has two automated teller machines that are all but unusable. One is in a wall six feet off the ground, requiring customers to bring their own step stools in order to use it. Steps were planned, but that requires a permit that never materialized. The other, just across the street, is so low that customers must kneel on the sidewalk to use it. The oddities are blamed on bureaucracy and architecture, but it boils down to bad planning on the part of the banks.

Thief Hides in Pile of Manure

A suspected fuel thief was being chased by police in Wiltshire, England. As he drove his van through the countryside in the dark, the unnamed Lithuanian suspect saw a helicopter and figured it had heat-detecting equipment. Thinking fast, he left his vehicle and ran to the warmest place he could find, a barnyard manure pile. But the helicopter spotted his excess body heat anyway.

Police officers on the ground were directed by the chopper’s police observer to the steaming pile of manure where they apprehended the feckless felon and arrested him.

One police insider said: "He gave up quietly when he realised he was in the s**t in more ways than one."

Easter Egg Tree has a Bumper Crop

Volker Kraft of Saalfeld, Germany has an Easter egg tree with 10,000 colored eggs hanging from it! He and his wife Christa, with the help of their children, use real eggshells with the insides blown out, dyed and decorated and hung with care. The tradition started out in 1965 with only 18 plastic eggs, but as the tree grew, so did the decorating job. Kraft says that 10,000 eggs is the most it will ever have -it won't grow any larger, because the couple has reached the limit of storage space. The tree has become a tourist attraction over the years.

Hen Hatches Ducklings

Hilda is a hen who lives at Farmer Palmer's children's activity farm near Poole, Dorset, England. She apparently sat on the wrong nest of eggs and stayed there, keeping them warm, until they hatched. Surprise! The eggs were full of ducklings! Farmer Philip Palmer was unaware until then that the eggs had been laid by a duck. Hilda took her strange-looking chicks as a matter of fact, and mothers them like, well, a mother hen. The ducklings stay close to her and hide under her wings. However, they may someday think it strange that their mother doesn't want to swim with them.

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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