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The Weird Week in Review

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Rent-A-Mourner for Your Funeral

If your deceased loved one might not have enough mourners at the funeral to suit you, you can now rent some. The UK-based Rent-A-Mourner company will send “professional, polite, well dressed individuals” to mingle with family and friends and express the proper amount of grief. They cost about $68 a head. The funeral will at least look better for services in which the deceased was new to the area, outlived their friends, or was just plain unpopular.

Dog Rescued by Cows

A border collie named Harley went missing for six freezing nights in the countryside near Aberdeen, Scotland, during a visit to a relative's farm. Her owner Leyonee Donald contacted police and made appeals online for the dog's return, but was almost resigned to the fact that Harley was lost forever. However, her father went to check on his cows and found them gathered around, acting restless and intently staring at a section of hay. Inside the hay was Harley, who had fallen into a hole in the haystacks and couldn't get out. Harley was retrieved from the hay and checked out by a vet, who declared the dog in good shape.

Making Sauce with a Cement Mixer

An unnamed pizza restaurant in Sweden came under fire for unapproved food preparation devices after a customer found a screw in his kebab. The restaurant staff blamed it on the salad tongs. Then it turns out that loose screws had been found in food before.

But the plot thickened when the customer alerted the local council's environmental office (miljökontoret). Inspectors discovered that the restaurant owners were using a cement mixer that had been painted blue for making salad dressing and sauces.

The owners were unable to explain what had happened with the pieces of paint that had flaked away and fallen off the machine.

"When I took over the restaurant, the previous owner told me that everything had been approved," the owner told DN, adding that he was new to the restaurant business and unaware of the rules.

On the health inspector's advice, the restaurant owner bought a brand-new food mixer the same day.

Easter Bunny Pulled Over by Highway Patrol

An Easter bunny riding a motorcycle with a sidecar on the interstate highway drew plenty of attention Saturday near San Diego. CHP officer Adam Griffiths saw him as well, and pulled the motorcycle over due to several violations: he wasn't wearing a helmet, wearing the bunny head impaired his vision, and he was distracting other drivers. But the bunny, who was on his way to a charity event, was issued a warning instead of a citation. He was allowed to continue, with the bunny head in the sidecar.

A Stolen Goat Walks into a Bar….

The Fairmont Hot Springs Resort in Butte, Montana, was missing a pygmy goat from its petting zoo. The staff didn't realize that the kid had been kidnapped, instead of just wandering off, until they saw a newspaper report of a goat that someone had taken to a bar early on Easter morning. Apparently, that stunt led to the animal warden taking the goat to the Butte-Silver Bow animal shelter, where the staff named her Shirley. The resort claimed the goat, and she was back home on Wednesday. The resort manager said they would press charges against the kidnappers -if they knew who they were.

KFC to Go Boneless

Kentucky Fried Chicken will introduce its new Original Recipe Boneless chicken on April 14th. The new chicken, which is also skinless, is aimed at millennials, who grew up eating chicken nuggets, and is expected to promote lunch sales by making it easier to eat in the car. The company will stop rolling out any new products with bones, and will start phasing out chicken on the bone. The majority of chicken at KFC will be boneless as early as next year.

 

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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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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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