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Scott Wright via Wikimedia Commons

The Weird Week in Review

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Scott Wright via Wikimedia Commons

Boeing's Biggest Plane Landed at Wrong Airport

The Boeing 747 LCF Dreamlifter is a modified airliner that can haul the most cargo by volume of any plane in the world. Boeing uses it to haul plane parts, particularly whole 787 Dreamliner fuselages. For takeoff, it officially requires a runway of 9,199 feet. Wednesday night, a Dreamlifter arrived in Wichita, which has several airports. The plane received clearance to land at McConnell Air Force Base, the intended destination. Instead, the plane landed at the much-smaller Col. James Jabara Airport nine miles away. Jabara has no control tower, and a 6,101-foot runway, which is almost a thousand feet short of the big plane's landing requirements. The plane landed with no injuries or damage -just some serious tire skid marks. But what next? A much bigger runway is required for takeoff.

A replacement crew was sent in to fly the plane out of Jabara and nine miles over to the Air Force Base. With much of the cargo removed, the plane was able to take off on the short runway Thursday afternoon.

Super Spicy Snacks Send Kids to Emergency Room

Popular new snacks covered with flavor powder described as "Flamin' Hot" or "Super-Spicy" are sending children to the emergency room with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining. Pediatrician Dr. Martha Rivera says she sees a half-dozen cases of gastritis in children every day -attributed to too many hot snacks. Emergency physician Dr. Robert Glatter thinks the kids become enamored with the burn of the spices, but blames the artificially-flavored powder for the irritation. He says he never sees emergency room cases from eating too much salsa. More and more schools are banning the ultra-hot snacks. Glatter advises parents to keep an eye on kids to make sure they don't become addicted to the spicy snacks.

Cats Hear You; Don't Care

A new study from the University of Tokyo sheds some light on cats' understanding of the human voice. A team led by Atsuko Saito studied 20 house cats over eight months in their natural habitat: at home with their owners. They found that 50 to 70 percent of cats would turn their heads when they heard a human voice, regardless of who it was. Their reaction was more intense if the voice was their owner's. This shows that cats do recognize their owner's voice. However, only 10 percent of the cats gave the feline version of an reply: by meowing or moving their tails. Apparently, cats mostly choose to ignore what they hear.

Blame It On Grandma

Dillon Coker was captured on camera speeding on the A127 in Essex, England. The 26-year-old responded to the summons that he wasn't driving the vehicle at the time; it was his grandmother. A quick check by the authorities revealed that Coker's grandmother lived in Sierra Leone, has never been to Britain, and does not know how to drive. Coker found out Tuesday that "perverting the course of justice" carries a stiffer sentence than speeding. He was sentenced to six months in jail, a suspended license, a £500 fine, and 100 hours of community service.

Frenchman Having Trouble Getting Home

Kevin Chenais went to the United States from his home in France to seek help with a hormone disorder. Chenais weighs 644 pounds. British Airways flew him to Chicago 18 months ago, but refused to take him back to France, citing safety issues. A week later, Virgin Atlantic agreed to fly Chenais to London. Once in London, his problems were not yet over. Eurostar railways refused to take him on the train through the Channel Tunnel to France, citing safety regulations. Finally, Chenais was able to secure passage on a P&O ferry.

The Absolute Grossest Way to Have Your Fortune Read

S. S. Singh is a "scatomancer," meaning he tells people's fortunes by examining their poop. In the new documentary A Journey to Planet Sanity, Singh says, "It's a lost art. You'd be surprised how accurate it actually is." Singh advises filmmaker Blake Freeman to do his business in the toilet, but not to flush. He then burns sage and examines the retrieved specimen.

What happened next shocked Freeman, who was already having a hard time keeping a straight face.

"You're just going to pick that up with your hand?" he asked.

"You have to get into it," Singh replied. "The stronger the aroma, the more accurate the prediction."

A Journey to Planet Sanity will be released in theaters and on iTunes December 6th.

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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]