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Miss Cellania’s Top 20 Weird News Stories of 2012

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One of the ways we celebrate the end of the work week here at mental_floss is to round up the oddest news stories for The Weird Week in Review. Not every weird news story made it into the weekly column here, because I tend to skip those that are overly prurient or tragic, such as the Florida cannibal (read at your own risk), and stories that are not available in English. But of those strange news items that did, here are the top stories of 2012 that are worth another look, some of them with updated information.

20. Car Lands on Roof

In a scene you would expect from an action movie (or a comedy), a stolen car landed on the roof of a house in Fresno, California. Police say the car was going too fast and hit a rock and a tree stump, which launched it into the air and onto the roof. The driver of the car fled the scene and was arrested soon after at his girlfriend’s home. There were people in the house when the car landed on it, but no one was seriously injured. A towing company had to use a crane to remove the vehicle.

19. Stolen Cash Returned …to Bank Robber

Bank manager Otto Neuman embezzled £150,000 in cash and gold from the Erste Bank in Vienna in 1993. He covered up the theft by having accomplices stage a robbery. Of the total, only £51,000 and some gold was recovered when police arrested Neuman. The gold went to the insurer, and the cash was kept as evidence -for nineteen years. Now, the Austrian Justice Ministry is returning the money to Neuman! The insurer compensated the bank for their loss, the gold had appreciated so much in the intervening years that the insurer suffered no loss in the long run, and the ministry feels it has no claim on the cash.

18. The Fork in the Road is Taken

The headlines just write themselves.

A six-foot-tall fork appeared in Carlsbad, California, in the traffic island at the intersection of Levante Street and Anillo Way on Tuesday [October 16]. The unnamed artist is a 62-year-old retired teacher who said he was impressed by the joke in The Muppet Movie in which the characters encounter a giant silverware fork when they are looking for a fork in the road. Carlsbad residents got a kick out of the sculpture, but a city crew removed it on Wednesday. Another resident erected a sign in its place that says “Why the fork not?” which the city also removed. Then residents then began taping real, normal-sized forks to a nearby sign. A spokesperson for the city said the sculpture is a code violation. Photograph by Jim Grant.

17. How Do You Re-Home Homing Pigeons?

Roy Day of Northfleet, Kent, England, had 20 homing pigeons in his garden shed. Neighbors complained of the noise and smell, and the Gravesham Borough Council notified Day that the pigeons were a health problem and that he would have to sell or give his pigeons away. Day says that if he took the pigeons somewhere else, they would come back, because that is what homing pigeons do.

“They gave me a seven day deadline to get rid of them but even if they went 150-odd miles away, they’d still come back – they are homing pigeons.”

16. Blue Honey Traced to M&Ms

Beekeepers in northeastern France were puzzled to find their hives were full of honey in strange blue and green tints. Although flowers bloom in colors, the nectar from them is usually colorless. The culprit turned out to be candy-coated M&Ms! A biogas plant near Ribeauville in Alsace had contracted with a Mars candy manufacturer to process the plant’s waste products, which included the colored candy and food dye. The biogas company was red-faced when confronted with blue honey, and promised to rectify the situation by immediately covering the waste to prevent bees from eating it, and to process the materials as soon as possible. The blue and green honey will not be sold. Photograph by Vincent Kessler/Reuters.

15. Scottish Village Gets a “Sister City” -on Mars

Many cities and towns around the world have a link to another city or town far away, for friendship and cultural exchanges. The village of Glenelg, on the western coast of Scotland, has announced it will “twin” with another place with the same name. Glenelg, Mars, is the designated name of the spot that the Mars Curiosity rover is headed toward. Officials in Glenelg, the Scottish one, announced that an official “twinning” ceremony will take place on October 20th. Although there will be no Martian natives at the ceremony, American astronaut Bonnie Dunbar will attend.

Update: The ceremony was a smashing success, and pictures are posted at the Glenelg and Arnisdale Community Portal. Pictured are some of the attendees from The Cullin Fools.

14. Why the Tortoise Wouldn’t Eat

People ask why England has so many funny news stories. The reason is that American journalists would skip these kinds of stories in favor of something more earth-shattering. Bless the UK for publishing them.

Margaret Parker of Carlisle, England, found a five-inch-long tortoise in her garden. The miniature tortoise was cute, so she brought it inside and tried to feed it. Parker’s daughter brought some lettuce for it, but it still wouldn’t eat. So the women called Knoxwood Wildlife Rescue Centre for advice, and a volunteer was sent out. Pauline Adams picked up the tortoise and figured out the problem.

She said: “At first when I arrived I didn’t have my glasses on and I thought it was a baby tortoise. It was sitting there in the shoe box, on a bed of lettuce and tomato.

“Then I put my specs on, and thought: ‘Oops – what’s this?’

“When I picked it up I saw the CE mark and the words Made in China, and I just cracked up.

“I laughed even more when she told me her daughter had been to the Co-op to buy tomato and lettuce for it. She was very apologetic. Judging by the moss on it, it had been in the garden a long time.

Adams and Knoxwood founder George Scott both said Mrs. Parker did the right thing by calling them.

13. German Civil Servant Did Nothing for 14 Years

An unnamed German man retired at age 65 when his civil service position was eliminated. In an email letter addressed to his colleagues in the city of Menden, he boasted that he had done no actual work since 1998. However, in that time he had gone to his office and collected 745,000 euros ($980,000) in pay from the municipal state surveyor’s office. He blamed the waste on authorities who hired another surveyor to do the same job, leaving him with nothing to do. The man has been in the same job since 1974. Mayor Volker Fleige was upset when he received the email, and said the employee had never once complained before now.

12. Wanted Man Turns Himself In for Reward

Taliban commander Mohammad Ashan saw his face on a wanted poster and noted the reward was $100. So he grabbed one and went to a police checkpoint in the district of Sar Howza, Afghanistan, where he demanded the reward. Afghan officials arrested him instead. He was wanted for plotting attacks on Afghan security forces.

When U.S. troops went to confirm that Ashan had in fact come forward to claim the finder’s fee, they were initially incredulous.

“We asked him, ‘Is this you?’ Mohammad Ashan answered with an incredible amount of enthusiasm, ‘Yes, yes, that’s me! Can I get my award now?’” recalled SPC Matthew Baker.

A biometric scan confirmed that the man in Afghan custody was the insurgent they had been looking for.

“This guy is the Taliban equivalent of the ‘Home Alone” burglars,” one U.S. official said.

11. Dead Snake Bites Man

A 41-year-old homeless man in Mobile, Alabama was treated with antivenom after he was bitten by a decapitated cottonmouth. A friend had seen the snake in a creek and cut its head off with a machete. The unnamed victim was playing with the severed head and stuck his finger in the snake’s mouth. By reflex, the snake head bit down on the finger. The man first refused medical treatment, but after he started showing symptoms of venom poisoning, he was taken to USA Medical Center, treated, and released.

10. Police Officer Chased Himself

In a story that was shared with a monthly police magazine, a police officer in Sussex, England, ended up chasing himself around for twenty minutes. A CCTV (closed circuit TV) operator saw a suspicious man on the streets, and called a plainclothes officer for help. The operator gave directions to the areas where the suspicious man was caught on camera, and the officer always seemed to be close, but could not see any evidence of the man. That is, until they realized that the “suspicious character” was actually the plainclothes officer! The date of the misadventure has been lost in the retelling, as all police officers involved were too busy laughing.

9. Bomb Squad Finds Schrodinger’s Cat Alive

A mysterious box appeared in a parking lot at Erie Community College campus in Amherst, New York, last Friday afternoon. The state police bomb squad responded and took an x-ray of the sealed box, which showed a cat inside! Police turned the cat over to the local SPCA. Gina Browning of the Tonawanda SPCA says the cat is okay.

“The cat was not malnourished, not dehydrated, didn’t need any kind of veterinary care. So, it had a happy ending. What concerns me is the people capable of doing this might be capable of doing something worse,” Browning said.

Just who would put a cat in a taped up box and leave it in a parking lot remains a mystery at this point.

Capt. Camilleri said, “Right now it doesn’t appear there’s really much to follow up on. It didn’t have any identification on the box or anything like that.”

The upside to this is that the cat, named “Truffle,” is fine, healthy and back with her owner. Tracking down the person responsible is unlikely, if not impossible.

If found, the persons responsible could be charged with animal cruelty. Even Schrodinger never wanted to try his famous thought experiment on a real cat.

8. Man Accidentally Joins Antarctic Expedition

The planned expedition led by Norwegian Jarle Andhoy was already shady, and now there’s an unwilling member along for the ride. The yacht took off in a hurry as immigration officials arrived to investigate Andhoy at an Auckland harbor, while a local mechanic was on board repairing an anchor on the 52-foot boat Nilaya.

Mr Andhoy and three crew members have embarked on an unpermitted voyage to Antarctica’s Ross Sea, in defiance of both the Norwegian and New Zealand governments.

A previous trip he made to Antarctica almost a year ago ended in disaster when his yacht Berserk sank in a fierce storm and three men died.

Declaring himself “a Viking”, the Norwegian adventurer says he is seeking the wreckage of the Berserk, which was serving as a supply ship for an attempt to reach the South Pole on quad bikes.

Authorities are looking for the Nilaya, which Andhoy said does not have a locator beacon. It is not thought to have adequate supplies for an extra crew member, either.

Update: The mechanic turned out to be Busby Noble, a Maori Mana Party activist, who joined the crew voluntarily. The subterfuge was due to the fact that Noble did not have a legitimate passport. The entire saga of the Nilaya/Berserk voyage is told at South Pole Station.

7. 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.

6. 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.

5. Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop Arrested

A 30-year-old man in Madison, Wisconsin found a way to get his 15 minutes of fame. Jeffrey Drew Wilschke had legally changed his name in October to Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop. That makes a great headline in itself, but Zopittybop-Bop-Bop was arrested last Thursday after neighbors complained of “excessive drug use.” Police recorded quite a few charges, including carrying a concealed weapon, possession of drug paraphernalia, possession of marijuana, and probation violations. When Zopittybop-Bop-Bop was taken into custody, he told police he would “get even with them.”

4. Police Break Up Cat Party

Sometimes the way a news story is presented makes it special. The Reykjavik Grapevine is a a master of that sort of thing.

Residents of Suðurnes, Iceland, called police on Sunday after they observed several cats going in and out a window of an unoccupied house.

Police arrived at the scene and, entering the house, found no people there. However, two to three cats – the exact number is still unclear – were allegedly occupying the house. According to police reports, the cats were “snuggling” on a couch that had been left behind by the previous residents.

Officers on the scene sprang into action, immediately evicting the cats from the house. They then ensured that all doors and windows into the house were securely closed and locked, in the hopes of preventing an incident of this sort from ever happening again.

Squatters holding parties in abandoned buildings will not be tolerated -even if they are cats.

3. Russian Children Take Found Lion to School

Children playing on the Russian steppe in the Rostov region found a 5-month-old lion cub -and took it to school with them! Their teacher contacted authorities, but the children played with the lion cub while waiting. The cub, named Barsik, had escaped from a car while being transported to a zoo in Dagestan.

Update: While the owner of the lion has not been found, it has found a temporary home at a zoo.

2. Fox Sends Text Message from Stolen Phone

Norwegian teenager Lars Andreas Bjercke downloaded an intriguing app that imitates the sounds of rabbits, in order to attract foxes. It worked very well. After several nights of circling the yard where the phone was left, a fox took the phone and ran off! The theft was captured on video. But the story gets even better.

Lars later called the phone and, surprisingly, the fox answered.

“There was a crackling sound and some noise,” Lars told Verdens Gang.

The next day, Lars’s friend wondered why he had sent him an odd text message. The message was in strange letters and numbers. Lars knew that the sender was the fox.

“I FRY o a0ab 34348tu åaugjoi zølbmosdji jsøg ijio sjiw,” it said in the message.

Read more about the story in Norwegian (with a news video) and in English.

And now… the biggest weird news story of 2012!

1. Amateur Art Restoration Goes All Wrong

A fresco of Christ by artist Elias Garcia Martinez was painted over a hundred years ago in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church near Zaragoza, Spain. A recent donation from the artist’s granddaughter was intended for the painting’s restoration. However, cultural officials found that an elderly parishioner had already done her own restoration! The woman, who is in her 80s, did an “alarming and unauthorized” touch-up of the original work that completely covered Martinez’s painting, although she claims the priest gave his permission. The woman had eventually realized she was having trouble with the job, and contacted the cultural ministry for guidance -but it may be too late to save any of Martinez’s work. If the painting cannot be recovered, a photograph of the original may be mounted over what now adorns the wall. Which you must see to believe.

The "restored" picture became one of the biggest internet memes of the year. The elderly art restorer, Cecilia Gimenez, became an instant celebrity, so we revisited the story later.

Art “Restorer” Wants Royalties

Remember Ecce Homo, the Spanish fresco of Christ that was made into a cartoon after an amateur restoration effort? The new look of the art has made its home, the chapel at Santuario de Misericordia, such an attraction that the church has started charging an entrance fee of 4 euros. Now Cecilia Gimenez, the octogenarian who painted over the fresco, wants a cut of that. Her lawyers say she is entitled to royalties, which would go to charity. Meanwhile, the family of the original artist is considering suing Gimenez for destroying the art, and the church has retained lawyers in defense from all sides.

Saturday Night Live even got in on the act.

Update: Cecilia Gimenez is selling her own artwork on eBay, for charity.

See also: Miss Cellania’s Top 20 Weird News Stories of 2011

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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