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The Weird Week in Review

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Woman Injured by Falling Porcupine

Sandra Nabucco of Gavea, Brazil, was walking her dog in Rio de Janeiro when a porcupine perched on a lamp post fell -right on Nabucco's head! The porcupine was okay, but Nabucco was left with 272 quills stuck in her scalp. We know how many because the surgeon counted them as he removed them, one by one. Nabucco is taking antibiotics after the painful treatment.

Don't Use Fire to Remove TP from Tree

Cheryl Crausewell of Dora, Alabama, found that someone had TPed the trees in her yard on Saturday night. The family tried to clean up the mess, but some of the toilet paper in a magnolia tree was out of their reach. What to do? Maybe they should have tried a ladder, but instead they set it on fire. A small piece of paper drifted out to the yard and ignited the grass.

"It just popped out into a little patch and we tried to put it out and it just kept going, so I was trying to keep it from going down the front porch and came down the bank and around the back of the house," she said.

Within seconds, Crausewell said the fire spread to the backyard where the propane gas tank from a grill may have added fuel to the fire.

Crausewell, her son, her elderly aunt, her mother and her aunt's caregiver were all at home when the fire started around 2 p.m. Everyone was able to get out safely.

The video at WBRC shows the scorched yard and toilet paper still in the trees, as well as the house, which is a total loss.

Baby Born on Snow Sled

Shirley Bonanni of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went into labor Thursday. Before she and her husband Fabian could go to the hospital, they waited for Fabian's parents to come and stay with their two-year-old son. By the time they arrived, Shirley was so far along in labor that she couldn't walk. So Fabian got a snow sled to take her to the car, which was down the hill and couldn't make it up the icy driveway. The baby couldn't wait, and came into the world as her mother was being transported on the sled. The grandparents and neighbors were on the phone with two 911 dispatchers, who gave instructions. Fabian rushed the baby into the warm home, and the grandparents and two neighbors carried Shirley, still on the sled, back into the house. An ambulance arrived later to take mother and daughter to a hospital for observation. Little Bella Sophia Bonanni is doing well. After the publicity of the birth, Firestone is giving the family four new snow tires so this won't happen again.

Police Rescue Man from Snow Fort

Police in Hermantown, Minnesota, responded quickly and saved a man's life after his snow fort collapsed on him. And his dog. Josh Toms and his dog Leo were inside the snow fort he built when the roof fell in, trapping both of them with little breathing room. The weight of the snow kept Toms from escaping.

Outside the fort was Toms’ son, Ian. "It was like, really, really scary because I didn't know what was happening," Ian said.

Ian then remembered what Toms had told him an hour before: "You first call 911 and then you come back and you start shoveling. But I was like, 'don't worry this never happens.'"

But this time it did.

Ian said "I was like ‘oh, he's just going to stand up,’ but he didn't stand up. So I ran inside to call 911."

Within 15 minutes, police arrived and pulled both Toms and Leo from the snow.

Hacked Refrigerators Send Spam Email

If a malware program can't find its way into your computer due to increased security, it will try other devices -like household appliances. An attack in December sent 750,000 spam email messages through malware that invaded 100,000 vulnerable devices, including a refrigerator. Some modern appliances have sophisticated computers inside, with internet connectivity so you can program them with your smartphone. However, these appliance computers rarely have adequate security against such attacks.

Pentagon Gives Away 13,000 Armored Trucks

The US military is divesting themselves of 13,000 10-foot-tall 40,000-pound heavily-armored vehicles because they don't think they will need them in the future. No, you can't just run out and get one, because they are not going to be given to private citizens. You wouldn't be able to afford parts and maintenance anyway. The Pentagon first offered the vehicles to US allies.

Interest from foreign militaries has been tepid. But they are a hit with stateside police agencies. Almost 200 trucks have been distributed to police departments since August and requests are pending for an additional 750 trucks. The vehicles, many of which feature machine-gun turrets, are off-limits to private citizens and businesses.

Lucky recipients run from the Ohio State University campus police force to Florence County, S.C., which replaced an armored vehicle from the 1970s that the sheriff department's SWAT team had used for about 15 years. A new armored truck would have cost at least $188,000.

You have to wonder what a campus police force intends to do with an armored truck. Or local police departments, for that matter. Defense contractors that maintain the vehicles and supply parts hope that the vehicles will stay in use instead of being sent to the scrap heap.

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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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