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George Co. Sheriff's Dept.

The Weird Week in Review

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George Co. Sheriff's Dept.

Alabama Lemur Held for Ransom

Gizmo, a ringtail lemur kept as a family pet, was taken from his home in Mobile, Alabama, during a burglary in January. The lemur's owner offered a $1,000 reward for the return of the animal, and James Edward Welborn, Jr. contacted the owner hoping to claim the reward. Meanwhile, a tip came in to police that Welborn has possession of a lemur. Police arrested Welborn and charged him with possession of stolen property, and he is awaiting extradition to Mississippi, where other charges are pending against him. Gizmo was returned to his home, where he is doing fine.

Disabled Not Allowed in Disability Court

This may be the weirdest story of British bureaucracy gone wild yet. Occasionally, disabled people must go to court to prove their disabilities or face losing benefits. However, someone decided to put the disability tribunal on the fourth floor of the Acorn House building in Basildon, England. Therefore, health and safety officials barred people in wheelchairs from attending because exit would be difficult in the event of a fire.

Sylvia Middleton, from Wickford Place in Pitsea, was turned away last Wednesday.

She said: “They said they couldn’t guarantee my safety and they didn’t let wheelchairs upstairs.

“Why are they holding disability tribunals in a building disabled people aren’t allowed in?”

The 65-year-old has been told she has to wait two months for a new hearing 12 miles away at Southend.

Officials had originally ordered she attend the court or risk losing her disability benefits.

Court officials claim the ruling is in error and are trying to work out a policy in which no one will be turned away.

Pope Resigns, Lightning Strikes St. Peters

Just hours after Pope Benedict XVI announced that he was resigning the papacy, a photographer caught lightning striking the dome of St. Peters Basilica in Vatican City. Filippo Monteforte, a photographer for Agence France Presse, waited for two hours in the rain to get the shot. He had a feeling that he might catch lightning during the storm. However, he missed the first lightning strike -but caught the second strike. If it was a sign from God, He made sure that the photographer had it on film.

Stuck at 125mph for an Hour

In a real-life version of the movie Speed, Frank Lecerf was forced to drive at top speed when his Renault Laguna, which was adapted for disabled drivers, went out of control. While running an errand in his home town of Pont-de-Metz, France, Lecerf found that any tap on his brakes made the car speed up -up to 125 mph! He called police, who cleared roads and alerted toll gates to open for Lecerf. They also patched in a Renault engineer on the phone, but nothing they did could stop the vehicle. The car finally came to a stop in a village in Belgium when it ran out of gas an hour later. Lecerf had driven over 100 miles. There is no word yet on why the car accelerated out of control.

Cops Chase Donut Truck

A Krispy Kreme delivery truck stopped at the Quick Shop on Dacula Road in Gwinnet County, Georgia. While the delivery man was inside, security camera footage shows how another man, later identified as James Freddy Major, jumped into the truck and drove off! A store clerk called police, who gave chase for about 15 miles.  

"Could you imagine going down the interstate and seeing the Krispy Kreme donut truck with the cops chasing behind it?; Flashing lights? What would you think,” said store worker Susan Patterson.

He eventually came to a dead end in a residential neighborhood. Police said he tried to run but a police dog tracked him down.

Police arrested Major on several charges, including theft and driving under the influence.

"Newborn" Portraits of 13-year-old Boy

Photographer Kelli Higgins often takes pictures of newborn babies. She has eight children, including two who were adopted from foster care. Her 13-year-old son Latrell expressed regret that he didn't have any baby pictures -and a sister suggested he have some taken now. Better late than never, right? Latrell thought the idea was funny, so they did a photo shoot with the 112-pound teenager posed in classic newborn poses. When his mother posted those photos on her business' Facebook page, response was overwhelming. Higgins hopes that the publicity will bring more attention to older children who need permanent families.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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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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