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The Weird Week in Review

Ground Zero at the Maya Apocalypse

The town of Bugarach, France, was reported to be the safest place on earth for the Maya Apocalypse. The officials of the village of about 200 said they didn't want to be flooded with refugees, but it turns out they were overrun with journalists instead.

It took jet-lagged correspondents about five minutes after arriving in town to realise that their end-of-the-world report would look as bleak as a rural French village in winter. Which, by the way, is exactly what Bugarach is. Their editors in New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Istanbul or London were definitely not going to be happy with endless footage of TV crews roaming helplessly in the otherwise empty streets of Bugarach, the rocky outpost in southwest France that doomsday prophets inspired by an ancient Mayan calendar have designated as the sole survivor of the impending apocalypse.

Journalists were even thwarted in their mission when the town's mayor did not show up for a press conference. Only one "doomsday prophet" was in residence, Sylvain Durif, who was glad to meet with journalists and receive all the publicity.

Naked Full Moon Grape Harvest

Vintner Mike Hayes of Queensland, Australia, is recreating an ancient ritual to improve his wine. That means picking the grapes under a full moon sans clothing. Records of the technique come from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and date back 4,000 years. Hayes considers the stunt an experiment, learned as part of a Churchill Fellowship. The nude harvesting will begin in March. Hayes grows dozens of rare alternate varieties of grapes, and his winery was awarded five stars.

Speeding Ticket for an Idling Car

In Baltimore, Maryland, a speeding ticket was issued to Daniel Doty based on a camera trap that noted he was traveling at 38 mph in a 25 mph zone. However, the pictures taken by the camera clearly showed that the car was idling at a stop light, and never moved during the sequence of evidence. The system contractor says each ticket must pass two layers of review, then be examined by a police officer before it is issued -which evidently did not work in this case. The speed camera program has generated $48 million in the past three years. Baltimore and some other areas pay the camera company contractors based on the number of tickets issued, which is prohibited by state law. A Baltimore District Court judge dismissed the case when it came to court.

Driveway Stolen

Rachel L. McCarty of Reddick, Florida, arrived home last week and felt a large bump at the entrance to her driveway. The concrete pavers that made up her driveway were completely gone! A neighbor had seen men digging up the concrete and loading it into a truck, but did not consider it suspicious. Another crew was doing contracted work on a barn on the victim's property, so the witness thought the driveway work was just part of the remodeling. However, when the perpetrator returned two days later to the same neighborhood and began to dismantle another driveway, he was reported by neighbors and arrested.

Zoo Baby

There's a new baby at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo! But there are no cute furry baby pictures released to the media, because this specimen is human. An unnamed 21-year-old woman went into labor as she was visiting the zoo in Syracuse, New York, last Friday morning. Zoo Education Coordinator Liz Schmidt was called to help.

“I honestly didn’t expect her to deliver at the zoo,” Schmidt said this afternoon. “I thought we’d pop her in a wheelchair and she’d be good to go to the hospital.”

It was obvious to Schmidt when she arrived that the baby had other ideas.

The woman had been touring the zoo with a group of five to seven adults and children when she went into labor, Schmidt said. An adult led the children away to go look at the lions, as the woman was giving birth, she said.

Zookeeper Sarah Kohler assisted, while elephant keeper John Moakler took over crowd control. An ambulance was called and took the mother and the newborn baby girl to a hospital.

Toddler Hatches Deadly Snake Eggs

Three-year-old Kyle Cumming of Queensland, Australia, found some interesting eggs in his yard and took them inside. He asked his mom for a container and stashed the eggs in his closet. Several weeks went by, and when Kyle's mother Donna Sim opened the wardrobe on Monday, she found they had hatched -into deadly eastern brown snakes! Of all the known snake species, only the eastern taipan is more deadly. The snakes were still in the container with a lid on, and Sims took the snakes to a wildlife sanctuary, where they were identified. The snakes will be released in a wilderness area. Kyle is a bit disappointed, because he wanted to raise the snakes.

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!

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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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