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The Weird Week in Review

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Goldfish Saved by Buoyant Harness

Leighton Naylor of Thornton, Lancashire, England, taught his goldfish Einstein to do tricks. But something went wrong with Einstein's swim bladders and he floated upside down—then sank to the bottom of the tank when he could no longer float at all. So Naylor went to work to help the fish.

So Leighton started designing the lifebelt, drawing his ideas and testing materials to make the finished adjustable around Einstein’s body.

Three hours later the contraption was complete.

Now Einstein is happily swimming again with his tankmates, Leighton’s three other fish Pat, Frank and Blondie.

Einstein will have to wear the harness for the rest of his life.

Hermit Lived Alone in Maine Woods for 27 Years

Stories of the North Pond Hermit circulated for decades as evidence of burglaries were uncovered through the years. The elusive hermit never stole money or caused damage, but took food and supplies. Finally, the officials at Pine Tree Camp, a camp for people with disabilities, installed an alarm. And this week, police arrested 47-year-old Christopher Knight, who may be responsible for up to a thousand such burglaries. Knight left home in 1986, two years after graduating high school, and his family thought he'd gone to New York. However, the hermit lived alone in the woods for 27 years. He only had contact with another person once, a hiker he spoke to briefly. Knight has not yet offered an explanation of why he avoided human contact all those years.

Seven-meter Wasp Nest

Is this a world record? I don't even want to know! An abandoned house in San Sebastián de la Gomera, Spain, was investigated by police after calls from neighbors. Inside, they found a wasp nest that almost filled a room! Experts measured the nest at 21 feet 9 inches. They fear it may have been built by an invasive species from Africa. San Sebastián de la Gomera is in the Canary Islands, less than 100 kilometers from Gibraltar. One can almost imagine the wasps, finding that this was the most wonderful place for a nest ever because no one bothered them and it never rained, and then deciding that they'd never leave to build new nests.

Memorial for a Drunk Monkey

Clonakilty, Ireland, is a town of less than 5,000 people, but it knows hospitality, and it knows how to draw tourism. A new monument to be unveiled today honors an incident of the town's hospitality in 1943. An American B-17 bomber carrying ten crewman and a monkey named Tojo, headed for Norway, landed in Clonakilty when it went low on fuel. The police took them into custody at a hotel where the Yanks and the locals held a three-day party with 36 bottles of rum the airmen had with them.

After several days, the crew were taken to Cork before they were driven from the neutral Irish Republic into Northern Ireland where they were handed over to the RAF.

But one very important primate was missing when the the airmen left the west Cork town.

Tojo had taken too much of a liking to the rum and other beverages.

"The efforts of local doctors, chemists, and vets failed to save the monkey and Tojo died of pneumonia," said Mr Tupper.

The monkey was laid to rest with full military honors. The townspeople still talk about Tojo, the first monkey most of the residents at that time had ever seen. To commemorate the occasion 70 years later, the town unveiled a bronze statue of Tojo Sunday, created by local sculptor Moss Gaynor.

Cookie Monster Arrested in New York City

A family from Connecticut had a picture made with a street character dressed as Cookie Monster from Sesame Street in New York's Times Square. Afterward, he demanded $2, but the family did not pay. According to the complaint, the character then yelled obscenities at the family and shoved a toddler. Police arrested Osvaldo Quiroz-Lopez of Queens on charges of endangering the welfare of a child.

Worst Guard Dog Ever

A burglar broke into a home in East Wenatchee, Washington, Saturday night and was still there when the residents arrived. They found him feeding the dog from the refrigerator. The suspect hung around for a while, talking with the frightened homeowners and revealing his name, and then left. The burglar called for the dog, a lab-pit bull mix named Buddy, and Buddy followed him out the door. Police found Jason L. McDaniel at his home, and arrested him. Buddy has not been found, and may be too embarrassed to return home.   

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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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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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