CLOSE

The Weird Week in Review

Miss Holocaust Survivor Pageant

Hava Hershkovitz was crowned Miss Holocaust Survivor in the first pageant of its kind last night in Haifa, Israel. The 79-year-old bested 13 other finalists for the title. A representative of Israel's leading survivors group called the pageant "totally macabre." Critics say the idea is disrespectful of the memory of the Holocaust and that judging elderly women on their beauty is inappropriate and offensive. Organizers of the event say that beauty is a very small part of the competition, and that the contestants' stories carried more weight. Nearly 300 women registered to compete in the pageant.

Burglar Foiled by Burglar-trapping Door

John Rodriguez arrived at the Rent-a-Center he managed in Brockton, Massachusetts, Tuesday and found 53-year-old Manuel Fernandes pinned to the floor under the metal door at the rear of the building. His first instinct was, of course, to whip out his phone and start recording.

On the video, the Fernandes claims he was just “trying to fix the door,” then claims he confused Rent-A-Center with another address, then finally pleads with Rodriguez to let him go, saying that he hasn’t taken anything. The man said he had been under the door since midnight.

Police freed Fernandes and took him to a hospital to be checked out. They plan to charge him with breaking and entering.

Dive-bombing Seagulls Halt Mail

Carriers in Elgin, Moray, Scotland cannot deliver mail to a neighborhood of 30 homes along Muirfield Road. A mail carrier reported that she had been the victim of persistent attacks by seagulls in the area. Royal Mail officials visited the route and concluded it was too dangerous for carriers to deliver mail to homes, so residents will have to retrieve their mail from the post office. Seagulls in Moray are known for attacking people, and feeding the gulls is prohibited. Otherwise, there isn't much anyone can do because the gulls are a protected species.

Firefighters Rescue Dog From Tree

The old trope of firefighters rescuing cats from trees was stood on its head last week in Atherton, California. A dog named Guinness chased a raccoon 30 feet up a tree! Then Guiness realized what he had done and was too terrified to come back down. Emergency dispatchers at first didn't believe the caller, but sent the Menlo Park Fire Department to assist. Firefighter Tony Eggimann used a 36-foot ladder, a harness, and dog treats to bring Guinness down. The family has since put a fence around the tree.

Playboy Playmate Wins Genius Visa

US immigration offers H1B visas for those who have skills the country needs. They also offer special visas, O-1s and EB-1s, for those with "extraordinary ability." An example is given as someone who has won a Nobel Prize. Canadian Shera Bechard, former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine's Miss November 2010, was awarded one of these special visas. Bechard's accomplishments include originating the Twitter meme known as Frisky Friday. The "genius visas" are known in legal circles as a way for celebrities and entrepreneurs to move to the United States to work when they don't technically qualify for the more popular H1B visa.

Law Against Lying Struck Down

Since 1989, Rhode Island has had a law on the books that said lying on the internet is a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to a year in prison. It was initially meant to prosecute scam artists, but was worded very broadly.

"This law made virtually the entire population of Rhode Island a criminal," said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island American Civil Liberties Union. "When this bill was enacted nobody had any idea what its ramifications were. Telling fibs may be wrong, but it shouldn't be criminal activity."

General consensus is that telling someone you are six feet tall when you are not shouldn't be illegal. In fact, the law may have stepped on the right of free speech. Rhode Island's General Assembly has now voted to repeal the law.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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