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The Weird Week in Review

The Story of the Three Bears

A woman in Snowmass Village, Colorado, spotted three bear cubs in her car last Saturday. There was also a mother bear, but she fled quickly. Police were called to clear the younger bears from the vehicle. A local wildlife department spokesman says the mother bear is a repeat offender, and is suspected of breaking into 14 cars over the past week. Most were unlocked, and the bear just opened the door to enter after smelling food inside. Two cars have sustained damage. Residents were warned to remove all traces of food from their cars, and to lock them when not in use.

Sonic Booms Shatter Supreme Court Windows

The Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Plaza) in Brasilia, Brazil, is the nation's governmental seat, and the home of the world's largest continuously-flown national flag. The flag is replaced every month with ceremony. Last Sunday, that ceremony included a flyover by two Mirage 2000 fighter jets. Rarely do supersonic planes fly low enough to be seen in such a way. What could possibly go wrong?

Although nobody was injured the fighter flew so low and fast that the shock wave they generated broke almost all the windows of Supreme Court glass facade.

In a statement, Brig Ar Kanitz Marcelo Damasceno, chief of the Center for Social Communication of the Força Aérea Brasileira (FAB), said that the Brazilian Air Force Command has initiated the investigation of the incident and will compensate the damage caused.

See a video of the flyover at The Aviationist.

30 Squirrels Escape from Zoo, 38 Recaptured

A typhoon wrecked the squirrel enclosure of the Inokashira Park Zoo in Tokyo last week, resulting in the escape of 30 squirrels. Attempts to recover the animals have been quite successful; at one count, 38 squirrels have been "recaptured." Zoo officials have offered three different explanations for the discrepancy: 1. they miscounted how many squirrels had escaped, 2. the squirrels reproduced while on the loose, and 3. some wild squirrels may have been picked up by mistake. The zoo implants microchips in their animals, so all recovered squirrels will eventually be scanned.

University Sues Overachieving Student for Lost Income

Marcel Pohl was a student at the School of Economics and Management in Essen, Germany. But not for long -he passed 60 examinations and graduated in three semesters, when the normal course is 11 semesters. You'd think the school would be proud, but they are suing Pohl for €3,000, which is the tuition payments he would have made if he stayed as long as other students! The school says they are entitled to the full payment, which is for the degree, not the time spent achieving it.

Taco Bell to the Rescue

Bethel, Alaska, is a town of 6,200 people 400 miles from Anchorage, with no fast food outlets. Last month, notices appeared around town announcing that Taco Bell would open in Bethel. After much excitement, the news turned out to be a juvenile prank. But Taco Bell heard about it, and launched “Operation Alaska.” The company airlifted enough supplies to make 10,000 Doritos Locos tacos for the townspeople on Sunday. They actually flew in a Taco Bell truck with a mobile kitchen by helicopter. The event was a public relations success for Taco Bell, and a welcome change of menu for Bethel.

Cat Death Ruled Insurance Fraud

Yevgeniy Samsonov of Tacoma. Washington, received an insurance settlement for injuries sustained in a 2009 traffic accident. Then in 2011, he claimed his cat had been killed in the accident and filed a $20,000 insurance claim.

Samsonov submitted photos of a cat, but an insurance representative found that the pictures had come from the Internet. On Thursday, The Associated Press found that one of the photos was the top image on Google for the search "white cat" and that the image is featured on the Wikipedia page dedicated to cats.

"We've handled some pretty unusual fraud cases, but this is one of the stranger ones," said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

The insurance company, which had already issued a $50 check for the cat, canceled the check and reported Samsonov to investigators.

Follow the Trail of Chips

Police responded to a report of a break-in at a Subway sandwich shop in Washington, Pennsylvania. The glass door was broken, and there was evidence that a thief tried to open the cash register but was unsuccessful. However, quite a few bags of chips had been taken. Police could see that the thief did not wait to start eating them. There was a trail of broken chips and discarded bags, which led police to 21-year-old Benjamin Sickles. Sickles, who was found with a bloody hand and foot, was arrested and lodged in the Washington County Prison.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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