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Guinness Book of World Records

The Weird Week in Review

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Guinness Book of World Records

Colonel Meow Sets World Record

Internet cat star Colonel Meow is now going to be enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records as the cat with the longest fur. The Himalayan-Persian crossbreed has fur that reaches nine inches long! His owners, Anne Marie Avey and Eric Rosario, have no trouble believing his record-setting fur, and they say it is all over the house. The newest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records will be published next month.

Chimpanzee Art Contest

A 37-year-old chimp who paints with his tongue won $10,000 for his Louisiana sanctuary in an art contest for chimpanzees. A painting from a retired laboratory ape named Brent at Chimp Haven sanctuary was judged the best in the Humane Society's art contest.

A Chimp Haven spokeswoman said Brent was unavailable for comment Thursday. “I think he’s asleep,” Ashley Gordon said.

The second place winner, Cheetah from Florida, also received $10,000: $5,000 for second place and another $5,000 when Jane Goodall selected the painting as her personal favorite.

All Students Fail University Admission Exam

Almost 25,000 students in Liberia took the test this year for admission to the University of Liberia—and every one of them failed. The U of L is one of only two state-run universities in the country, and is severely overcrowded -but this year, they won't have any incoming freshmen. University officials blame an educational system that hasn't recovered from the civil war, which ended ten years ago. The country's education minister is suspicious, considering this is the first year that the university has seen a 100% failure rate in its admission process.

Toilet-cleaning Social Club

The Benjyo Soujer ("toilet soldiers") is a 35-member group that met on Facebook and came together for a fulfilling task: to clean Tokyo's public toilets.

The group gathers exclusively on Sunday mornings at 6am, even in the freezing winter.

What's more, the group's rules encourage members to use their bare hands to clean the lavatories, for one of the mottoes of the group is to 'clean thyself by cleaning cubicles'.

Masayuki Magome, the Benjyo Soujer leader, says: "Basically, excrement is something that comes out of our body, so we adults don't really think of it as dirty. So without really thinking, we clean them with our bare hands, and because the children see us doing that, they don't really think of toilets as dirty either. That is one of our philosophies."

45-year-old Magome, who runs an architecture agency, started the group in 2011, and says that for many members, this activity has led to a sort of spirit cleansing ritual, and it is similar to one of the trainings Buddhist monks endure to find peace of heart.

Tokyo has thousands of public toilets, so at the rate of one per week, the club is in no danger of replacing public service employees.

Police Respond to Call About Spider

A teenage girl in Forest Grove, Oregon, called 911 to report a giant spider on the couch. She described it as a "massive freaking creature." She estimated it to be about the size of a baseball. A police officer responded and reported that the spider was about two inches in diameter. He took care of the problem with a rolled-up newspaper. The police department said it was an unusual call, but they decided to respond anyway.

Hole Makes Huge Pumpkin Ineligible for Alaska Fair

J.D. Megchelsen of Kenai, Alaska, grew a 1,500 pound pumpkin to compete at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. He fed the pumpkin up to 300 gallons of water a day during its peak growth. The pumpkin gained 41 pounds in one 24-hour period! However, it was all for nought, as a small hole was discovered in the huge pumpkin. The thumb-sized hole makes the pumpkin ineligible for competition. Megchelsen is heartbroken at the loss of a possible record.

“It’s just killing him,” said Pam Elkins, Megchelsen’s sister-in-law. “He eats, sleeps and dreams pumpkins. All he does is pumpkins.”

He plans to take the pumpkin to the fair for the weigh-in anyway.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.