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The Weird Week in Review

Kidnap Victim Saved by Twitter Followers

Lynn Peters of Johannesburg, South Africa, sent out a Tweet that her boyfriend had been kidnapped Sunday night. He was put into the trunk of his own car by armed carjackers! However, the unnamed man was able to contact Peters via phone. Her alert, which included his license plate number, was retweeted and picked up by a network of 100,000 users who monitor roads for police activity. A private security force, alerted by the RTs, found and stopped the vehicle, and freed the boyfriend. The carjackers fled on foot.

600-pound Man Cut Out of Home

An unnamed man in Upper Burrell Township, Pennsylvania, experienced a medical emergency and needed to be rushed to the hospital. Police had to break into the home, then found the house in such a mess that they could not find a clear path to bring the 600-pound patient out. The fire department decided the home was too toxic to enter, so the Hazmat team came out and cut a hole in the side of the house with chainsaws. Then the fire department used a pulley to extract the patient, who was taken on a flatbed truck to a waiting ambulance. The man's medical condition is not known.

Indian Authorities Place Bounty on Vampires

The streets of several villages in the state of Tamil Nadu in India are virtually deserted after dark because residents are in fear of vampires. Cattle have been dying under mysterious circumstances, and villagers believe it is the work of blood-sucking supernatural forces (Ratha Kaatteri). Authorities believe the vandalism is the work of criminals who want to keep villagers terrified so they can carry on bootlegging and other illegal activities. Still, the local council has offered a reward of 100,000 rupees ($1,950) to anyone who catches a vampire. They say the reward is to challenge the residents' beliefs in the supernatural nature of the crimes.

Police Help Blind Writer Recover Work

Trish Vickers of Charmouth, Dorset, England, lost her sight seven years ago, but continues to write in longhand with a system that keeps her lines straight. During a particularly creative streak, she wrote 26 pages of a novel. However, the ink in her pen had run out. She only found out when her son Simon came to check her work.

Ms Vickers, who used to run the Bridport gift shop Zoot Allures in South Street, said: “We battled with various ideas until we thought of the police.

“We rang them and asked to speak to their fingerprint section. They said if there was anything they could do they would be happy to help.

“I was gobsmacked and so happy.”

Working in their spare time, the police officers were able to decipher and restore all 26 pages -and they said they enjoyed reading the story.

German Civil Servant Did Nothing for 14 Years

An unnamed German man retired at age 65 when his civil service position was eliminated. In an email letter addressed to his colleagues in the city of Menden, he boasted that he had done no actual work since 1998. However, in that time he had gone to his office and collected 745,000 euros ($980,000) in pay from the municipal state surveyor's office. He blamed the waste on authorities who hired another surveyor to do the same job, leaving him with nothing to do. The man has been in the same job since 1974. Mayor Volker Fleige was upset when he received the email, and said the employee had never once complained before now.

Meth Lab Found in Walmart Bathroom

A custodial employee at the Walmart store in Boaz, Alabama, found a surprise while cleaning the bathroom. It was a "shake-and-bake" (single use) meth lab! Police confirmed the apparatus included a water bottle and pseudoephedrine pills, of a brand not sold at Walmart. Police Chief Terry Davis said his department had found such methamphetamine setups before, but never in a public business. The Marshall County Drug Enforcement Unit destroyed the cooker.

Toilet Plunger Used as Weapon

Lawrence Deptola was arrested for attempted bank robbery in Utica, New York on Thursday. He allegedly went to three different banks and demanded money, each time threatening tellers with a toilet plunger. He yelled obscenities at bank employees, but left without money each time. The incidents were recorded on surveillance video. Utica police in an unmarked car found Deptola leaving the scene of the third robbery attempt. The suspect fled when he saw officers approach, but was caught soon afterward. The plunger was recovered inside the bank.

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!

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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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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