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Matt Lavin/Marist College Crew

The Weird Week in Review

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Matt Lavin/Marist College Crew

Rowing Team Finds 7-foot Floating Head

The Marist College crew team rowed across an object floating in the Hudson River Monday morning. It was a giant fiberglass and styrofoam head. The head is four feet wide and seven feet tall! Several days later, no one has identified or claimed the head, but many think it resembles a Mardi Gras parade prop. However, it could have come from anywhere and may have been in the water for several years.

Man Survives Harpoon in Head

A man in Petropolis, Brazil, accidentally shot himself through the head with a harpoon. As he was cleaning his fishing gear, 34-year-old Bruno Barcellos de Souza Coutinho was impaled by a spear that went 15 centimeters into his skull. For some reason, he did not seek medical attention until the next day! At the urging of a relative, de Souza Coutinho went to a hospital and received emergency surgery. There is no mention of how de Souza Coutinho managed overnight with the spear in his face. He lost an eye, but suffered no brain damage.

Missing Tiger Found in Ladies Room

Jenna Krehbiel of Salina, Kansas walked into a restroom and came face-to-face with a tiger. She had just watched the big cat act at the Isis Shrine Circus at the Salina Bicentennial Center, but she didn't expect to meet one of the stars.

“I went in to use the bathroom, and a lady came in to get her daughter out and said there was a tiger loose,” Krehbiel, who was a first-time visitor to the circus, told the Salina Journal. “I didn’t know it was in the bathroom, and I walked in the (open) door, which closed right after I had walked in. I saw the tiger; it was at most two feet in front of me, and I turned around calmly and walked back toward the door.”

The tiger had escaped at some point during the show, according to Center officials, prompting staffers to lock down the area, but the roughly 25-foot-long bathroom apparently had more than one entrance — Krehbiel came in from the other side, putting her “the closest [she'd] ever been to a tiger not in a cage.”

When she later told her 3-year-old daughter of the incident, the child wanted to know if the tiger washed its hands.

The Saskatchewan Hoodoo

Several months ago, someone discarded a mattress on the side of Ring Road near Regina, Saskatchewan. It lay on top of several feet of snow, and as the snow around it melted, the mattress appeared to rise up from the surrounding landscape. Locals began referring to it as a natural wonder called the Saskatchewan Hoodoo. The mattress was finally removed this week, but the Hoodoo lives on in photographs

Intruder Uses Dog Door

A couple in Weatherford, Texas, called police Tuesday when they heard noises and found damage to their dog door. They don't have a dog. Afraid a large animal had entered the home, they looked around and found a naked woman in the bathtub! Police arrested 25-year-old Sara Soto, who insisted she did nothing wrong and only came in to use the telephone. Soto's dress was found on the back porch.

Woman Swallows Diamond at Charity Event

The Tampa Woman's Club held a fundraising event in which 400 flutes of champagne each held a gem. All but one were cubic zirconias, and one lucky participant was to get a $5,000 diamond. However, when the champagne was gone, the real diamond could not be found. An elderly woman reported that she had accidentally swallowed the gem in her glass. Coincidentally, the woman was scheduled for a colonoscopy the next day, during which the doctor found a gem. An appraisal determined that it was indeed, a real diamond.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]