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KSN-TV

The Weird Week in Review

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KSN-TV

Suspect Identified in Evidence Vandalism

Police in Wichita, Kansas, held a press conference to release a sketch of the suspect in a case of evidence tampering at their property and evidence department building. They have determined that mice chewed into packages of marijuana. Lt. Doug Nolte said police followed protocol and photographed, weighed, and resealed the evidence. Exterminators have been called in to assist police in the case.

"We do have a sketch artist that came and did a rendering of who we believe is responsible for the marijuana heist, and so, we are currently looking for something that resembles a mouse like this," said Nolte.

The perpetrators have yet to be caught.

Chicken Wing Theft

Either they were taking advantage of the high price of chicken wings, or they planned a really big Super Bowl party. Dewayne Patterson and Renaldo Jackson were arrested after being seen loading a rental truck with ten pallets of frozen chicken wings, worth about $65,000. The theft took place the Nordic Distribution Center outside Atlanta, where both men worked. Patterson and Jackson now face felony theft charges. 

Student Project Helps Disabled Kitten

A nine-month-old cat named Flipper was born with a twisted spine. She's not paralyzed, but her back end doesn't walk on the same plane as her front end. Vets at the Aspen Park Vet Hospital in Conifer, Colorado, considered putting her down, but then decided to seek the help of the Blitz Robotic Club at Conifer High School. The club went to work and students designed a set of wheels that are powered by Flipper's sideways-turned back legs. The kitten learned quickly to use the contraption, and vets are hopeful that the support and exercise she gets from the device will allow her spine to straighten out on its own. 

Zimbabwe Has Only $217 Left in the Bank

The government of Zimbabwe paid civil servants' salaries last week, and discovered the balance of funds to be only $217, according to Finance Minister Tendai Biti. The nation has no money to hold elections and will have to appeal to other countries for the estimated $104 million needed for the elections and a constitutional referendum. No mention was made of paying workers' salaries in the future. Zimbabwe's financial structure has been in ruins for a decade, and hyperinflation has devalued its currency to ridiculous levels.

Woman Arrested for Falling Through Ceiling

A woman fell through the ceiling of the police station in Kihei, Hawaii, on Monday. Sheryl Vazquez was arrested on the spot for criminal trespass, criminal property damage, and disorderly conduct. It is believed that Vazquez gained entry to the crawl space above the ceiling from outside the building, but no motive for the stunt was suggested. Damage to the ceiling was evident in several rooms at the station. Vazquez was not injured in the incident, and was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.

Fresh Air in a Can

The legendary air pollution in China has been in the news because Beijing's air is worse than ever, causing sore throats and diverted airline flights. Multimillionaire businessman Chen Guangbiao saw an opportunity in the situation. On Wednesday, he handed out free cans of fresh air, supposedly from faraway areas of China with more pristine air quality. The cans normally sell for 5 yaun, or 80 cents, with proceeds going to charity. Chen considers the stunt "a way to awaken people to the importance of environmental protection."

Dreadlock Thieves Cut and Run

Hair stylists in South Africa are reporting an increase in incidents of dreadlock theft. Victims report that thieves cut the dreadlocks off to be resold. Natural dreadlocks sell for as much as 2500 rand ($279), and are rare enough that buyers often don't care where they came from. Police in Johannesburg say they have not received reports of theft, possibly because the victims are embarrassed. Durban police say they only had one reported theft.  

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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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