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The Weird Week in Review

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Ghost Robs Liquor Store

A security camera captured footage of a man dressed in a sheet attempting to steal from a liquor store in Anniston, Alabama. The police were summoned by an alarm Wednesday morning. The man had fled the store when they arrived, but they watched the recording as the man went up and down the aisles, dealing with the eyeholes on his costume. The man ran off into the night without taking anything from the store. Watch the video.

The Ride of Kick Buttowski's Life

Electrician Helen Stevens got in her work van in Melton, Leicestershire, England, and sped off to another job in another town. She did not know that a cat was clinging to her roof! Stevens got up to 70 mph on the highway when she saw another vehicle flash its light at her. She pulled over, checked her van, and found a cat clinging for life to the roof! She took the terrified cat to a veterinary clinic. The clinic, where they nicknamed the cat Batman, put an appeal on Facebook to find the cat's owner. A friend called Ellise Pepper, whose 5-year-old son was worried about his missing cat, Kick Buttowski. The family was reunited with the cat the next day. Kick Buttowski still looks a little traumatized.

Woman Charged With Stealing Fountain Change

Deidre Romine of Bellafonte, Ohio, was arrested and charged with stealing $2.87 in coins from the bottom of a public fountain. Romine said she didn't believe the money belonged to anyone and she needed it for food. The coins were thrown in the fountain by people who make a wish. However, city officials consider that the money belongs to the city, and charges are pending against Romine. The community responded to the news by finding help for the woman, who was about to lose her home. An online fundraiser is up to more than $11,000 after beginning with a goal of $200. She has received help in other forms offline as well. Romine's trial date is November 25th.

Man Meets Internet Girlfriend: His Daughter-in-Law

A 57-year-old man named Wang in Muling, Heilongjiang province, China turned to the internet for entertainment after he retired. He met a young woman and chatted. She told him her husband was in jail and that she was a single mother. Wang also lied, telling her his wife was dead. Both used internet pseudonyms. The two arranged to meet at a hotel. Unbeknownst to the young woman, her husband Da Jun had come home from out-of-town work early and followed her. When the two internet lovers met, they were dumbfounded to find that they were related -the woman was Wang's daughter-in-law! That's when Da Jun confronted both of them. Da Jun, not realizing it was the first meeting between the two, beat his father until he was bloody, and knocked three of his wife's teeth out. All three were hauled to police headquarters, and Da Jun was jailed for assault. 

Cat Survives Bolt Through the Head

A cat in Wainuiomata, New Zealand, survived a crossbow bolt right through his head. When his owner Donna Ferari found him, Moo Moo was taken to a local vet who referred him to Massey University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Janet Molyneux, director of the hospital, said Moo Moo was lucky to survive, and when the call had come in the team had assumed they would be looking at brain damage.

"The arrow hadn't actually pierced anything or damaged anything or affected the eye," she said. "We really assumed the worst."

"He's just been remarkably normal and happy and purring ... he's going to go on to be a completely normal happy cat."

The bolt had glanced off the cranium, sparing Moo Moo's brain. After surgery to remove the bolt, the cat was sitting up calmly. He is expected to make a full recovery. Police in Wainuiomata are investigating the incident. See an x-ray here.

Doping Scandal in Pigeon Racing

The Belgian pigeon racing federation sent samples from its athletes to a South African lab for testing, and the results came back showing that pigeon owners had been giving the birds cocaine and painkillers. Why were samples from racing pigeons tested in the first place? Because doping has been a problem with pigeon racing for more than ten years now. I would suppose that these are blood samples; getting a pigeon to cooperate in giving a urine sample would be difficult.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”