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The Weird Week in Review

Eternal Flame Extinguished Due to Unpaid Gas Bill

The former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan has a memorial to fallen soldiers of World War II in the capital city of Bishkek, which features an "eternal flame." However, the government is three years in arrears to the gas company, Kyrgyzgas, that supplies the fuel for the flame. The bill is now over $9,000, and Kyrgyzgas turned off the supply line, putting the eternal flame out. The government said there is some confusion as to who is responsible for the bill, but they hope to work things out before the annual May 9 memorial commemorations.

Dull and Boring

Many cities adopt a "sister city" across the pond. These matchups between the New World and the Old World serve as a sort of cultural exchange. People in the village of Dull, in Perthshire, Scotland, have shown their sense of humor by seeking out a partnership with the Oregon logging town of Boring. It may be the most exciting thing that's happened in the two towns in a while.

Community councillor Marjorie Keddie said: "It might seem like a joke, but this could have real benefits for Dull. Everyone has been smiling at the prospect of the very eye-catching road sign this will inevitably require."

The two towns are not exactly equivalent, as Boring has a population of 12,000 while Dull could scramble up maybe 80 people.

Stabbing Victim Used Kebab as Pressure Bandage

James Hobbs of Highbridge, England, got into an altercation in Somerset with Jamie Edney, who slashed Hobbs' throat. To stem the bleeding, Hobbs grabbed a kebab from a takeout order and pressed it against his neck. He still lost over six pints of blood before being stitched up at the hospital. Edney was later sentenced to five and a half years for the stabbing, the lowest possible sentence, because he didn't start the fight.

Where Do You Work? "Roof"

Richard Haughton builds and repairs thatched roofs in Scottow, Norfolk, England. But when he works, all eyes are on his dog Axel, who's right there on the roof with Haughton and his crew. The Newfoundland mix has been climbing the ladder to be with his master since he was a puppy, and now has quite a reputation among customers, who love the rooftop dog. Axel climbs up well, and doesn't mind spending all day on the roof, but still cannot climb down on his own. He'll wag his tail to let the work crew know he needs to be brought down.

Felony Charges for $1 Soda

Mark Abaire of Naples, Florida, requested a cup for water at the local McDonalds, but instead filled it with soda from the fountain. When confronted by the manager, Abaire declined to pay for the soda, and was arrested shortly after. Although the crime would normally be misdemeanor theft, Abaire's record of petty theft raised it to a felony charge. He was also charged with trespassing and disorderly intoxication, both misdemeanors.

Cher's Key to the City Sold on eBay

Officials in Adelaide, Australia, were not happy to see the honor they bestowed upon singer Cher for sale at eBay. The Key to the City was sold early Thursday on the auction site. Mayor Stephen Yarwood said he was "exceptionally disappointed." Former mayor Steve Condous, who presented the key to Cher in 1990, said,

"I'm disappointed. I would have thought that getting the key to a city like Adelaide would have had some value to her, but obviously it doesn't because she wouldn't have got rid of it," said Condous.

"If she didn't want to keep it she should have returned it back to the city."

The bidding is is now closed; the key sold for over $95,000.

Targeting Customers: You're Doing It Wrong

Cedric Barnes of Florence, South Carolina was apparently looking to drum up some business by calling names from his list of phone contacts. He must have not recognized the name of one man he called trying to sell some marijuana. It was his former probation officer. The officer set up an appointment for the transaction and contacted Florence police, who were the ones who actually met with Barnes, bought the pot, and then arrested him. Police seized a half-pound of marijuana and some cocaine during the bust.

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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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