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The Weird Week in Review

Farmer on Tractor Crushes Seven Police Vehicles

Vermont farmer Roger Pion was apparently angry at the local police for his recent arrest on marijuana possession and resisting arrest. So angry that he drove his tractor to the Orleans County sheriff's offices and right over seven of the department's vehicles! Five marked cruisers, one unmarked car, and a transport van were all crushed under the tractor's weight. Deputies could not chase Pion down, as they had no vehicles left to pursue him with. Newport city police found Pion soon after. He is being held on several felonies for the incident. No one was injured.

Fisherman Saves Bear Cub from Whirlpool

Mike Polocz, of Soldotna, Alaska, looked for a little fishing solitude on the Kenai River last weekend. He spotted a family of bears watching a cub that was caught in a whirlpool! The cub was shrieking in terror. Polocz's son Dustin steered the boat near, and the fisherman tried prodding the panicked cub with a fishing net frame, hoping to nudge him out of the eddy. After 10 to 15 minutes of poking, he finally moved the cub out of the whirlpool and into slower-moving water. The cub ran to shore, where his huge mother met him. Polocz's friend Charles Mettile captured part of the rescue on video.

Man Shoplifts Book on Ethics

Terry J. Davis was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky, Wednesday on a charge of theft by unlawful taking. In most instances, that means shoplifting. University of Louisville police report he is accused of stealing a textbook called Resolving Ethical Issues from the UofL’s Health Sciences Center and trying to sell it at a bookstore. Apparently, he didn't take time to read the book.

Chihuahua Finds Lost Girls

Carlie and Lacey Page, ages 5 and 8, became lost while walking a forest trail near their home in Newnan, Georgia on Monday. Police and firefighters began a search for the girls. Neighbor Carvin Young joined in as well, with his 3-year-old chihuahua named Bell. Bell found the girls about two hours after they went missing, as he recognized their smell. The girls were scared but unhurt, and Bell is now considered a hero.

Police Officer Couldn't Find Himself for Eviction Notice

Lithonia Police Chief Washington Varnum, Jr. is fighting to keep his job, although the city of Lithonia, Georgia found out his police credentials had been revoked in 2010 for an incident in his past position in the DeKalb County Sheriff's department. Apparently, he was accidentally given the task to serve an eviction notice on himself.

"He basically provided a sworn statement to the courts that he himself could not be found," said Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) spokesman Ryan Powell.

Varnum was living at the Les Jardins apartment complex and working as a DeKalb County Deputy Marshal when, he said, a co-worker asked him to serve a stack of eviction notices at the complex.

Varnum told Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer that he noticed his name was at the top of one of the notices, but he did not serve any of them. He instead checked the box which read, “Defendant not found in the jurisdiction of this court,” and hand-wrote underneath, “All breezeways must be properly marked with the unit numbers for service.”

The option chosen is a technicality used when officers cannot find a certain address, but the marshal's office has a policy that deputies cannot be an interested party in papers they're serving.

Varnum's defense is that he showed no partiality and treated his own eviction notice the same way he treated all the others in the stack. By ignoring them. Varnum resigned from his job while under investigation in 2010, and was hired by the city of Lithonia -and promoted to police chief- since the incident.

London Mayor Left Hanging From Zipline

London mayor Boris Johnson is enjoying his time in the spotlight and the opportunity to promote his city. However, there’s always the risk of something going wrong. One of those promotional opportunities was at Victoria Park, where Johnson took a ride on the zipline while carrying two British flags. But the wire sagged about 65 feet from the end of the line, and the mayor was left dangling in the wind. It was only a few minutes before help arrived, but the press was there to record the event. Johnson used the time to wave the flags and cheer on the British Olympic team.

Rare Brazilian Amphibian Resembles Something Else

When engineers drained a hydroelectric dam basin on the Madeira river in Brazil, they discovered a strange creature described as a "blind snake." That was last November, but scientists have just announced they have identified the "snakes" as Atretochoana eiselti, which are not snakes at all, but amphibians. However, the creatures look like eyeless snakes, or, actually, they resemble a penis. You can see pictures that are technically safe for work, but you may have to offer an explanation if someone sees them on your computer screen.

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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