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David Biggers

The Weird Week in Review

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David Biggers

Giant Purple Chicken Stolen

Most thieves would try to hide their loot, but it was impossible in this case. What were they thinking? Three men were arrested in Putnam County, Florida, for stealing a 9-foot-tall purple chicken. The 660-pound aluminum statue stood guard over a honey stand owned by David Biggers until last Monday, when a neighbor heard a commotion. He went outside and saw a pickup truck dragging the chicken down the street -with one of the perpetrators riding on it! Witnesses and video evidence led police to the chicken, which had sustained extensive damage. The chicken is valued at $2,300. Darrin Luke Edwards, Tyler Lee Jones, and James Joseph Smith were charged with grand theft.

Toddler Buys Car on eBay

Sorella Stoute of Portland, Oregon, is 14 months old. While playing with her father's phone, the toddler pushed enough buttons to open eBay and purchase a 1962 Austin Healey. Her father, Paul Stoute, only found out about the transaction when he got an email confirming the deal. Both parents went into a panic, but then realized that the vehicle was only $225, and the seller was fairly local. So they decided to just keep the car. Stoute is considering restoring it for Sorella's 16th birthday. But he also installed facial recognition software on his phone.    

Bees Foil Carjacking in Sting Operation

Pay attention; this one is complicated. Two guys in a Lexus in Craighall, South Africa, witnessed a BMW hitting a Peugot in a hit-and-run and then followed the perpretrator. When the two cars stopped, the Lexus passenger got out to take pictures for evidence. Three men got out of the BMW. One of them jumped into the Lexus and pointed a gun at the driver. The Lexus driver hit the gas pedal and backed the car swiftly into a wall. The wall collapsed, and thousands of enraged bees swarmed from their hive behind the wall and into the Lexus. The three men from the BMW, which was found to be a stolen car, were last seen running down the street, pulling their clothing off. Emergency services responded and treated the two men from the Lexus for bee stings. The Lexus was a total wreck, the Peugot was badly damaged, and the wall sustained an estimated $10,000 in damage.  

Government Agency Smashes Computers to Get Rid of Viruses

A couple of years ago, the Department of Homeland Security notified NOAA (the weather agency) and the Economic Development Administration (EDA) that they had a potential malware problem in their computer systems. The two agencies reacted in very different ways. NOAA isolated the problem and cleaned out the malware. That project took a few weeks. The EDA, however, cut its entire computer system off from the outside world, disabling email and causing the agency -and its database- to be inaccessible to its regional offices and other government agencies.

It then recruited in an outside security contractor to look for malware and provide assurances that not only were EDA's systems clean, but also that they were impregnable against malware. The contractor, after some initial false positives, declared the systems largely clean but was unable to provide this guarantee. Malware was found on six systems, but it was easily repaired by reimaging the affected machines.

EDA's CIO, fearing that the agency was under attack from a nation-state, insisted instead on a policy of physical destruction. The EDA destroyed not only (uninfected) desktop computers but also printers, cameras, keyboards, and even mice. The destruction only stopped—sparing $3 million of equipment—because the agency had run out of money to pay for destroying the hardware.

A report said that the malware was of a common type, and there was no evidence that the agencies were targeted for attack. 

Homeless Man Under House Arrest

Domenico Codispoti was arrested for petty theft and drug charges in Milan, Italy, and was sentenced to two years of house arrest in 2006. But Codispoti is homeless, so the court did the best they could to carry out the sentence. Each night, Codispoti must be at the sidewalk at number 22 via Pisani, in his normal sleeping place by 9PM. He must stay in that spot until 7AM. Police patrols come by to make sure he is in his spot. If Codispoti leaves his assigned area, he will be arrested. This has happened a few times, such as the time he crossed the street to urinate. Each time he is sent to jail for a short time and released to more "house arrest" time. As it stands, Codispoti's sentence will be up in 2014. Unless he crosses the street again.

4-Year-Old Mayor Seeks Re-election

Dorset, Minnesota, has a population of 22 people. Those fine citizens are led by mayor Robert Tufts, known locally as Bobby, who became mayor last year when he was only three years old. During his tenure as mayor, Bobby helped to raise money for Ronald McDonald House charities. Bobby would like to be mayor for another year, but that's not really up to the voters of the unincorporated village. Each year, a mayor is chosen by raffle. Bobby, as the incumbent, gets to draw the name this year. Raffle tickets are $1 each, so the odds of winning can be manipulated somewhat.    

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]