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Matt Zencey

The Weird Week in Review

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Matt Zencey

Bad Review from 1863 Finally Retracted

This newspaper retraction took 150 years to see print, but like they say, better late than never. The Patriot News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, published a bad review of a local speech which they referred to as "silly remarks" that "deserved the veil of oblivion." That speech was later known as the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the new Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Yesterday, the newspaper published an apology for its earlier review, even going so far as to use the style of the Address as a framework for its own mea culpa. The paper could be forgiven the original remarks: after all, the president himself said that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here," which also turned out to be wrong.

Batman Suparman on the Wrong Side of the Law

Batman bin Suparman changed his name legally to reflect two comic book superheroes a few years ago. Now it appears that the crime-fighting moniker has had little influence on his life. A judge in Singapore sentenced the 23-year-old Suparman to two years and nine months on charges of breaking and entering, theft, and heroin use. It all started when his older brother reported $650 missing from the bank account behind his ATM card. An investigation led to the arrest of Suparman after he was observed on a surveillance video taking money from GF Billiards & Marketing during a break-in. He was arrested on August 19th, at which time the heroin charge was added. If he had taken some inspiration from his name, he might have tried wearing a mask or at least using a secret identity.

Police Respond to IKEA Assembly

If you thought the confusion one confronts when assembling IKEA furniture was because the instructions are Swedish, this story should reassure you that they are just as baffling to Swedes as to the rest of the world. A family in Strömstad, Sweden, on the country's western coast, were assembling furniture at 1AM. The banging, or possibly the swearing, woke their baby, who began screaming. The neighbors, alarmed at the commotion, called the local police.

When officers arrived on the scene, they found the couple was engaged in that most Swedish of activities, assembling Ikea furniture, and that the crying did indeed come from an infant child. It remains unclear if the baby was simply crying in need of attention, or whether it too was frustrated by the complexity of the Ikea instructions.

The police understood completely.

Executives Watching Porn Is a Leading Cause of Corporate Malware

Ah, the perks that come from being the boss! Surfing for porn on the internet is a fireable offense for most employees, but who is going to report a CEO? A survey of security analysts at 200 firms finds that 40 percent of the respondents have had to remove malware from a senior executive's computer or mobile device after they perused porn. Senior executives who open spam emails were also a significant cause of malware in the workplace. However, the IT department is wary of reporting such incidents: 57% of data breaches are not publicly reported.

Impersonating a Police Officer to Get Discounted Donuts

From Florida comes the story of 48-year-old Charles Barry, who apparently has a habit of demanding a discount on donuts from his local Dunkin' Donuts outlet in Pasco County. Employees say that Barry had presented himself as a U.S. Marshal on several occasions, in order to receive a discount. When he came in on a weekend and demanded a discount for his whole family, the management rescinded his privileges. But Barry kept demanding his "police discount," and even showed a badge and flashed a gun at the drive-through window a week ago. By then, police had set up a surveillance operation to catch Barry in the act, and he was arrested as he left the donut shop. Barry has been charged with impersonating an officer and improper exhibition of a firearm.

Deer Leaps Through Trailer Wall

An unnamed woman from Las Vegas was driving through Utah when she felt as if her vehicle had hit an animal or something, although she didn't see anything. She called the local sheriff's office, which sent Conservation Officer Micah Evans to investigate. He found the trailer with a hole torn in the front of it -about four feet off the ground. There was no blood visible on the trailer. Evans went inside the trailer, half expecting to find a scene of carnage. Instead, there was a deer standing there, seemingly uninjured!

"I can hear the jaw moving, and I can hear the tongue working," Evans said. "It was either licking its front leg or licking something that spilled on the floor. And as I'm looking at this animal, I'm thinking, 'Man, how the heck am I going to get this thing out of the trailer?'"

Standing in the doorway, Evans took a picture with his camera of the buck. The flash went off and the buck sprang toward the doorway, Evans jumped out of the way, then the buck leapt over a barbed wire fence and ran away, according to the sheriff's office.

The deer, a three-point buck, declined to tell his side of the story.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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