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The Weird Week in Review

Friday the 13th Lucky for the Tattoo Business

At one time, getting a tattoo of the number 13 inked in your skin on Friday the 13th was popular because it was considered an act of rebellion. Some tattoo parlors still celebrate Friday the 13th with special prices on tattoos, as low as $13, and expect great business. London tattoo artist Dan Gold already has 13 tats of the number 13 on his skin, but will get another today. Victor Miller is another who has the tattoo. He considers 13 his lucky number, especially after a movie he wrote, Friday the 13th, became a hit.

Parking Spaces for Men and Women

Gallus Strobel, the mayor of Triberg, Germany, a small town in the Black Forest, has discovered a shortcut to international publicity: political incorrectness. A city parking garage has unveiled parking spaces designated for male and female drivers.

Unlike the 12 spaces set aside for women, which are wider, well-lit, and closer to the exit, the men’s spaces require the driver to pull in at an angle, and avoid hitting cement pillars. They are an “attraction” for any ambitious driver, Strobel told the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

“But men are, as a rule, a little better at such challenges,” he told the paper.

Strobel is particularly happy with the attention the story brought to his town.

Fruit Flies With the Ability to Count

A team of geneticists at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada and the University of California held math training sessions for generation after generation of fruit flies. The fruit flies, being not too bright, did not respond to the numbers... that is, until the 40th generation of flies to undergo such training. Finally, flies could recognize the difference between two, three, or four flashes of light. The next step in this research is to figure out what changed in the flies' brains over the 40 generations of math training, and how they managed to pass on those changes to their descendants.

Don't Clear Spiderwebs with a Blowtorch

Eiliya Maida of Chico, California, just wanted to clear cobwebs from his backyard. However, he chose to use a propane-fueled blowtorch to do it. Maida did not notice that some weeds ignited, which spread to the house. Only when his brother-in-law saw smoke coming from the attic did Maida realize what he'd done. Firefighters extinguished the blaze in a few minutes, but not before the fire did $25,000 damage to the house. The attic is burned, and the home's electrical system will have to be replaced.

Chimpanzees Escape, Roam Zoo Freely

Five chimpanzees in Hannover, Germany, took advantage of some debris in their enclosure to climb out and mingle with zoo visitors on Wednesday. Four of the chimps at the Experience Zoo returned to their home after a short time, but the oldest ape went to visit the zoo's gorilla. The zoo evacuated 2,500 people during the escapade. One 5-year-old girl was taken to the hospital with minor injuries after a chimp knocked her down. The last chimpanzee was eventually lured back and was given the use of a ladder to return to the pen. You can see some video of the incident here.

Giraffe Rescued from Septic Tank

A full-grown giraffe became stuck when its weight apparently caused a septic tank to collapse at the Marloth Park wildlife preserve in South Africa. Veterinarian Cobus Raath and a team of rescuers worked to free the animal. They blindfolded the giraffe and stuffed cotton in its ears to calm the beast while they worked. Twenty volunteers heaved the giraffe out of the tank.

"The animal was distressed and had been trying to get out," he said.

"We decided not to incapacitate him but blindfolded him to try and calm him down.

"We then called a load of local people who rushed to help and we used ropes and brute force to pull him out of the hole sideways."

The operation took about 20 minutes to get him out.

The giraffe was treated for shock and was freed after appearing to recover nicely.

Raw Crawfish Transmit Lung Fluke

Protip: when you're river rafting and drinking, try to avoid the temptation to eat raw crawfish. St. Louis hospitals have treated at least nine people over the past year for a flatworm transmitted from the crawfish that travels to one's lungs and can live for up to ten years if not treated. The condition, called paragonimiasis, can take months to exhibit symptoms and is hard to diagnose. A scientist from the CDC said, "In Georgia, we go canoeing and we see crawfish. It never occurred to me to eat one. What's wrong with you people?" Most of the cases were blamed on excessive alcohol intake while camping or rafting on Missouri's rivers. .

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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
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!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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