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The Weird Week in Review

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Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air Theme Song Prompts School Lockdown

Travis Clawson's life got flipped, turned upside-down. A receptionist at an eye doctor's office in Pennsylvania called 19-year-old Travis Clawson on Thursday to confirm an appointment. Instead, she got an outgoing message that alarmed her. She thought she heard the teenager say something about shooting up the school. The receptionist then called Sewickley police, who contacted the Ambridge Area High School, where officials put the school on lockdown. Police found Clawson at the school and arrested him.

An investigation determined that the outgoing message on the phone was Clawson singing the theme to the TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The line “And all shooting some b-ball outside of the school” was what alarmed the receptionist and set off the crisis. Clawson was released and has not been charged with any crime, but his parents were urged to have him change the outgoing message on his phone.   

Man with Sword and Blind Cat Arrested  for Burglary

Police in Lawrence, Kansas, received an emergency call saying that a man barged into a mobile home and terrified the residents into fleeing. He was described as shirtless and shoeless, but he was wearing a sword in a scabbard at his waist, and was carrying a cat and some Chinese meditation balls. He stayed in the mobile home and ate the resident's food. Police came and arrested 31-year-old Blake Robert Hurd. Not long after, another resident of the neighborhood reported a burglary that had occurred while the residents were away. The list of missing items included a Japanese-style sword, a blind black cat, and a pair Chinese meditation balls. The blind cat, named Freddie, was returned to his owner along with the other items.

Mexican Police Confiscate Marijuana Cannon

There's no need to smuggle drugs across the border when you can just fire them over with an air cannon. Police in Mexicali, Mexico, seized a homemade cannon made from a length of plastic pipe powered by compressed air. The device had apparently been used to lob canisters of up to 30 pounds of marijuana over the border into California. U.S. Border Patrol officers contacted Mexican police after finding such packages near the border.

Obama Runs for Governor

Kenya's new constitution, enacted in 2010, calls for dividing the country into 47 counties. The country's first national election in years will determine who will govern those counties, as well as who will be president. Malik Obama, the Kenyan half-brother of the U.S. President, threw his hat into the ring for the governorship of the new western county of Siaya. It is Obama's first political campaign, and several other better-funded politicians are running for the same office. Obama hopes that the name recognition will help his chances.

Priest Sprays Crowd with Holy Water Gun

Father Humberto Alvarez of Saltillo, Mexico, has a decidedly pop culture style. He has a special clerical robe with the  logos of superheroes, including Superman. He blesses congregants during youth services with holy water shot from a water gun. The adults enjoy the sprinkling as much as the children, but Father Alvarez puts the gun away for adult services. The shenanigans are popular with congregants, but the Bishop of Saltillo is reportedly not happy about it.

Refrigerator Full of Semen Confiscated From Student

Art student Marc Bradley Johnson prepared his masterpiece entitled "Take This Sperm and Be Free of Me" for exhibit. It consisted of 68 vials of his own semen in a refrigerator. The exhibit, which debuted last Friday, invited members of the public to take a vial away with them. However, the School of Visual Arts in Manahattan confiscated the exhibit the next day, citing health concerns. School officials planned to have the vials destroyed as hazardous waste, but Johnson objected. After days of discussion, the school agreed to return the vials to Johnson. The exhibit will go back on display, but the vials are now sealed and will not be given away.  

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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