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The Weird Week in Review

Drunk Party Steals Airplane

A Soviet-era Antonov-2 plane is missing from the Serov aerodrome near Yekaterinburg, Russia. The privately-owned plane had been rented to monitor forest fires, but is believed to have been boarded by an inebriated group of 13 people, including the local police chief. Officials believe the party wanted to view some waterfalls around 100 kilometers away. Emergency responders are scouring the Urals, an area of 12,000 square kilometers, with six search planes for signs of the aircraft. No flight plan was filed, and passengers are not responding to cell phone calls.

Naked Man Flees Spider

Police in Albion, Illinois, received a number of calls about a streaker Tuesday morning. They responded to the northeast part of town and found the young man in question, who had by then returned to his home and put on shorts. The unnamed man was not streaking as a prank or a statement, but explained he was terrified. He had awakened to find a spider in his bed! Not bothering to dress, he fled the home straight through a glass door and ran down the street naked. He was taken to a hospital for treatment of cuts from the broken door. Police do not suspect alcohol or drugs.

Wombat Blocks Storm Drain

The city of Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, requires that developers make sure the storm drain system is working before building a new subdivision. A survey was recently conducted by remote camera and found a blockage that turned out to be a wombat! Video footage clearly shows the creature, almost exactly the size of the drain pipe, backing away from the camera. Engineering officer Sonia Smith says she's seen rats and mice in the pipes, but this is her first encounter with a sewer-dwelling wombat. She said the wombat will be removed and relocated, and the pipe opening will be blocked to further wombat access.

Student Caught with 35-foot Cheat Sheet

An unnamed high school student in Kazakhstan was expelled from school after he was found attempting to cheat on a college entrance exam. Proctors noticed him fiddling with his clothing before the test. Under his jacket, they found a cheat sheet containing 25,000 potential test answers! The notes were printed onto a scroll of printer paper 35 feet long, wrapped around his body under his clothing. An official noted that the effort put into the scheme would have been better used for learning the material.

Tourists Saved by Calling Pharmacist

It's not easy to look up a phone number in a foreign country, especially in a panicked situation. When the tide rolled in and surrounded Italian tourists Oberdan and Patrizia Cosimi on a rocky shore in Devon, England, they could not recall the country's emergency number. But the couple found a receipt in a jacket pocket from a pharmacy they had visited a few days before, which contained a phone number. Despite a poor signal, pharmacy employee Pat Askwith figured out they were in trouble and called the coast guard, who rescued the couple and their dog by helicopter. The Cosimis later returned to the shop to thank Askwith for going above and beyond for them.

School Lunch Blogger Denied Photography Rights

Martha Payne, the 9-year-old blogger in Scotland who went viral documenting her school lunches for two months (and who inspired this post), has been shut down by the local council. The blog had caused visible improvement in the quality of the local school lunches, and had raised £2,000 for a food charity. But Martha was called out of class yesterday and told she could no longer take photographs in school because of a newspaper article. Martha protested that she doesn't write newspaper articles. Her father made an inquiry, as the school had supported Martha's efforts, and found that the new rule came from the Argyll and Bute council. No explanation was given for the council's decision. Update: the council has at least temporarily reversed its decision today.

Cat Struck by Car; Hitches Ride

A car traveling at around 100 km/h (62mph) through Roxburgh, New Zealand struck a local cat named Bekkum. The driver was unaware, and continued to the town of Alexandra, 40 kilometers away. There it was discovered that Bekkum was stuck behind the car's license plate! A SPCA volunteer helped to extract the cat by partially dismantling the car. Bekken, surprisingly, was uninjured. His owner, Gaynor Crabbe, says Bekkum has a reputation for hitching rides with unsuspecting drivers, but usually prefers to ride in the car's interior, particularly the back window.

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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