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The Weird Week in Review

Naked Unicyclist Charged For Distracting Drivers

Joseph Glynn Farley of Clear Lake, Texas, was arrested in nearby Kemah for indecent exposure when he rode a unicycle naked on a bridge. Police chief Greg Rikard said Farley kept falling off the unicycle, causing a traffic hazard. However, he was not intoxicated. The 45-year-old Farley said he liked the feeling of riding without clothes. Police had warned him earlier, before he shed his clothing, not to ride the unicycle on the bridge.

A Prom Night to Remember

A group of high school students in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, were decked out for the prom last Saturday night. They headed to Lac La Belle and posed for group pictures on the lake's pier. Then the pier collapsed. The quick-thinking photographer kept shooting, resulting in an unforgettable sequence of pictures. The wet teenagers, attempting to save the occasion, ran so many hairdryers -plus a clothes dryer- in one home that they blew a breaker, but managed to make it to the prom.

Man Exposes Himself at Association for the Blind

Once again, real life recreates a scene from the movies, namely Revenge of the Nerds. A man exposed himself to a woman inside the Bucks County Association for the Blind in Newtown Township, Pennsylvania. The incident occurred in the facility's bookstore. The flasher fled before police arrived. One has to wonder how many times he tried it before someone noticed.

Becoming Mayor by Accident

Gino Bertolo was the only candidate running for mayor in Cimolais, Italy, a town of 507 citizens. Fearing that no one would turn out to vote, he asked his friend Fabio Borsatti to throw his name into the hat as well to produce a turnout on election day. Borsatti agreed, but still voted for Bertolo, who had served as mayor previously. When the ballots were counted, Borsatti, who had no platform, received 160 votes to Bertolo's 117. Even Borsatti's family voted for Bertolo! However, Borsatti intends to carry out the duties of his unintended office, and will focus his efforts on tourism. Bertolo says he is not upset, and is still friends with the new mayor.

Parakeet Knows Its Home Address

A lost parakeet flew into a hotel in Sagamihara, Japan, and landed on a guest’s shoulder. Since no one knew where the bird came from, it was taken in a cage to a local police station. For two days it sat there. Then the parakeet must have decided it was time to go home.

Despite giving no indications that it could talk, the bird suddenly piped up late on Tuesday night and began repeating its home address – which its owner had apparently drummed into the bird for just such an unlikely eventuality.

Specifying the address down to the number of the house and the block on which is stands, the bird enabled police to track down its 64-year-old owner.

Fumie Takahashi is glad to have her parakeet back. And that answers the question of what is the first thing you should teach your bird to say.

My Name is Tyrannosaurus Rex

Twenty-three-year-old entrepreneur Tyler Gold was looking for name recognition to help his business, a way to stand out in the crowd. So he appeared in York County District Court in Nebraska on Monday to have his name legally changed to Tyrannosaurus Rex Joseph Gold. Gold said he selected the new name because it's "cooler." However, the nature of Gold's business did not make it into the news.

Burglars Break Into Poison-filled Home

T.V. Sagnella of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, had his home treated for termites, which involved covering the entire house with a plastic tent. Burglars know that a tent over the house is a sign the owners are not inside, so Sagnella rigged his home with video cameras. His brother checked the live feed at 4:30 AM Wednesday and saw a robbery in progress. The group of burglars didn't get much because an alarm tripped and police responded. Officers could not enter the house due to toxic fumes which could be felt even outside the tent. Before the police left, they received word from a flea market about an attempt to sell the stolen items. Three suspects were arrested in a vehicle that contained stolen jewelry. The story contains the surveillance video.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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