CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Naked Shopping is a Hit

A new Priss supermarket opened in Süderlügum, North Frisia, Germany, on Saturday with a special promotion offering €270 worth of groceries to the first 100 shoppers who showed up in their birthday suits. The offer went over much better than expected, with around 250 naked people waiting as the store opened. Supermarket manager Nils Sterndorff was surprised, as he had expected maybe a dozen people to take advantage of the promotion. He was pleased with the gimmick's success. The shoppers were mostly Danish, who often cross the German border to shop because prices are generally lower.

When Camera Traps Go Bad

Camera traps are hidden in the forest to record wildlife without disturbing their natural behavior. The cameras are equipped with infrared lights and motion detectors. But some folks think they should be clearly labeled after one caught an unnamed Austrian politician having sex on film. However, the organization managing the traps say they are camouflaged specifically to preserve the animals' natural habitat and to not draw attention. On the one hand, the politician is guilty of trespassing, as the area was clearly posted as forbidden. But the tape will not be made public, as its release is against Austrian law and carries a $25,000 fine.

UK Airport Auctions Off Jewelry Instead of Returning It

Lost airline luggage is so common as to become a cliche, but this case is no joke. The Duchess of Argyll flew into Glasgow Airport in 2006, but her luggage containing $150,000 in jewelry did not make it. She notified the airport authority and the police. Two months later, the luggage was found, but instead of returning it to its rightful owner, the British Airports Authority auctioned off the contents! The Duchess only discovered what happened when she recognized one of her heirloom pieces in an auction catalog this year. The jewelry had been sold years earlier and the proceeds went to charity. But now the BAA had to reimburse the Duchess an equivalent sum from the sale. And most of the jewelry, as well as the documents related to the case, cannot be found.

Woman Beats Up Husband Over Onion Magazine

Lynne Rasbornik of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, was looking through her husband's car when she found copies of the satire magazine The Onion and a local alternative newspaper called the Shepherd Express. Rasbornik was enraged, as she considers both publications to be pornography, and attacked her husband so violently that police were summoned. Officers at first thought Rasbornik was the victim, but noticed she kept picking and scratching at herself to make her minor wounds look more serious. Rasbornik was arrested for domestic abuse.

Train Engineer Adopts Owl from Track

Guo Zuchun drives a train in Chongqing, China. One day he saw three tiny owls on the track and managed to stop the train before hitting them. They were too small to fly, and are believed to be victims of a storm that destroyed their nest.

Two were given to a local wildlife centre to be raised, but Guo was allowed to keep one as a pet.

Now the young owl thinks his new life is a hoot, says Gou.

"I take him to work every day and he sits on the dashboard in front of me having a good look at what's going on around us," he said

"He seems to like riding the train more than he likes flying," laughed the driver.

You can see pictures of the baby owl riding the train with Guo at Austrian Times.

Three Teens and a Deputy Injured in Drunk-driving Simulation

Drinking and driving don't mix. You know what else doesn't mix? Teenage drivers and drunk-simulating goggles. A group of Explorer's Club members in Elkhart, Indiana, were taking turns driving around a parking lot Monday in a golf cart wearing the goggles, which distort the wearer's vision. A 14-year-old driver turned hard and tipped the cart over. The driver, two teenage passengers, and the instructor all sustained minor injuries. They were treated at a hospital and released. The golf cart sustained some damage, and was taken out of service.

Woman Finds $6500 Ring in Goodwill Jeans

Deb Thompson of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, picked up a pair of blue jean capris at her local Goodwill store. In the pocket, the clothing donor had left a diamond engagement ring! An appraisal set the value of the ring at around $6,500. Thompson reported the ring to Goodwill, and the staff posted the story on its Facebook page. Within a short time, seven different people had claimed the ring, but so far no one has a concrete claim. Thompson hopes to find the correct owner and hear the story behind the ring, but if not, she will be able to keep it.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
arrow
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
arrow
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]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES