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The Weird Week in Review

Inmates Attempt Escape Disguised as Garbage

Sidney da Cruz and Carlos Pereira, two detainees at the Delegacia de Furtos jail in Curitiba, Brazil, had a great idea. They stuffed themselves into two garbage bags, along with some garbage, and hoped to be taken out and dumped with the rest of the facility's trash. However, prison guard Cleverson Mineiro walked by the garbage bags, lined up in a hallway, and saw a couple of them shaking. The plot was foiled. The local police chief said the plan was doomed to fail, as the thin bags would never be able to remain untorn under the weight of a grown man. Police and guards took photographs of Cruz and Pereira while still in their disguises.

The Fish That Fell from a Tree

A woman in Vancouver found a fish in her backyard. It had fallen out of a tree. Really. Cindy Wilkinson tells of a voice message she got from her friend Jan Bailey on Monday.

"She said, 'The strangest thing just happened. A fish just fell out of our cedar tree on to the ground.'" Bailey, who lives near Third Street and St. David's Avenue, had seen the fish make a dive worthy of an Olympian in her backyard. Her husband went out to investigate, and found the piscine drop-in covered in cedar needles but - incredibly - still alive.

It was an unusual looking fish, reddy orange and about 25 centimetres long. Bailey hauled out an old aquarium, filled it with water and put the fish inside. Then she called Wilkinson, who promptly called Lynda Taylor, another friend who knows her fish and has a big koi pond.

"I said, 'There's a fish that just fell out of a tree,'" said Bailey.

The women did their research and determined that the fish, now named "Lucky," is a Midas cichlid, and was most likely carried off by a heron or other large bird, then dropped alive into the tree. They would like to reunite the fish with its original owner.

Missing Lego Piece Found in Boy's Nose

Six-year-old Isaak Lasson of Salt Lake City, Utah, had been suffering from sinus problems for three years. Doctors had examined him and prescribed antibiotics to no avail. Last week, a new doctor thought he saw something stuck in the boy's nasal cavity. A specialist was enlisted to remove the object, which was covered in fungus. It was a small Lego piece - that had been stuck there for three years! Isaak remembered putting spaghetti up his nose when he was younger, but had no idea he'd been carrying around a Lego piece in his schnozz all that time.

Cow Rescued from Fifth Floor

In the Siberian village of Lesogorsk, Russia, a rescue crew was called to extract a cow from the fifth floor of an apartment building. The cow had apparently run up the stairs to escape an amorous bull that had chased her out of the pasture. The bull was lingering at the bottom floor of the building. Emergency workers told a Russian news agency that the cow had to be pulled downstairs and outside with a rope, as she had no desire to leave the safety of the building.

Don't Dial 911 During Your Own Crime

Justin Kryzanowski of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was arrested on drug charges after police received a 911 call from his phone. The 24-year-old had accidentally dialed 911 while in the middle of a drug deal. Dispatchers heard the entire conversation as Kryzanowski went about his business. The proceedings were also recorded, as all 911 calls are.

Bears Consume 100 Cans of Beer

A mother bear and three cubs are the suspected culprits in the vandalism of a cabin near Jarfjord, Norway. The owners arrived to find a wall of the cabin had been knocked down, the furniture wrecked, and every scrap of food in the cabin consumed. Including 100 cans of beer. Authorities are concerned that the bears may return to the area, looking for more goodies.

Arizona Penguins to be Left Homeless

The historic Eastman Gin in Phoenix, Arizona, is going to be dismantled. The town council has allocated $70,000 for the demolition of the 84-year-old gin.

Town officials say the cotton gin, which operated until 2005, is structurally unsound and filled with roosting penguins. They're concerned that the town will be liable if someone is hurt inside.

It's possible that the quote was supposed to say "pigeons," but one week and quite a few comments later, the story has not been altered.

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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