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London Fire Brigade

The Weird Week in Review

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London Fire Brigade

Crystal Ball Failed to Predict Bedroom Fire

A bedroom fire in northeast London, England, was started when sunlight was concentrated through a crystal ball on the windowsill. An unnamed man was asleep in the bedroom when a smoke alarm woke him, enabling him to escape. The man and a woman tried to extinguish the flames with a garden hose and towels, but then fled the home and called the fire department. Firefighters spent an hour putting out the blaze. Fire investigator Mick Boyle said glass ornaments, bottles, and mirrors should never be kept in sunny windows.

Man Eats Nothing But Pizza For 25 Years

Dan Janssen is 38 years old, and he hasn’t eaten anything besides pizza in the past 25 years. While monotonous, that doesn’t necessarily sound too unhealthy, because you can put anything on a pizza: meats, vegetables, even fruit and seafood. But Janssen only eats cheese pizza!

Janssen wasn’t always on the pizza-only diet, though. It all began when, as a teenager, he decided to become a vegetarian for ethical reasons. But he hated vegetables, so he just decided to start surviving on pizza alone. He says he knows he must sound “like a horribly unhealthy and fat person” but he says he’s in fact thin, has tons of energy and feels great every day.

However, Janssen does have diabetes. He says he gets variety in his diet by eating different brands of pizza, or going to different restaurants. Janssen is not so much a vegetarian as he is just a “tarian.” Where I come from, that diet is called “picky eating.”

Snake Pickled in Liquor Bites Woman

An unidentified woman in Harbin, China, decided to make some snake liquor to help her arthritis. The medicinal liquor is made by adding a venomous snake to alcohol such as baijiu, and letting it steep so that the essence of the snake infuses the liquor. The woman had been dispensing the liquor from a spigot at the bottom of the container. When the alcohol level got low, three months after adding the viper, she opened the top of the container to add more baijiu, and the snake bit her! The woman was treated for the bite on her finger. The snake had apparently gone into hibernation and woke up not only trapped and angry, but also drunk. Maybe next time she will make snake liquor with a dead snake, as the recipe calls for.

Guy Wearing Breaking Bad Shirt Busted for Meth Lab

Acting on a tip, Cook County Sheriff’s officers arrested 21-year-old Daniel Kowalski at his home near Lagrange, Illinois, on several charges related to running a meth lab. In addition to meth and manufacturing equipment, police also found twelve jars of psychedelic mushrooms in the home. It was Kowalski’s second arrest for meth charges, and he was still wearing an electronic monitoring device from the earlier arrest when he was picked up Monday.

Kowalski was ordered to home confinement after his arrest last July, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Sophia Ansari.

In the mug shot after his most recent arrest, Kowalski is wearing a T-shirt bearing the words "Los Pollos Hermanos," the name of a restaurant used as a front by a meth dealer in the TV series “Breaking Bad.’’

Kowalski’s mugshot has since gone viral because of the appropriate t-shirt.

6,000 Gallons of Spilled Milk

If that isn’t something to cry about, I don’t know what is. A tanker truck carrying 6,000 gallons of milk crashed into the front of a house in Hunker, Pennsylvania, on Thursday afternoon. Two people were inside the home near the point of impact, but were not injured. The truck driver sustained only minor injuries. The house was badly damaged, and the entire load of milk was spilled into the front yard. Authorities say they will contact the Environmental Protection Agency about the milk spill.

Two Dogs Take Truck on Joyride

A pickup truck came very close to plunging into the Arkansas River in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Tuesday. The truck, belonging to a man identified only as Scott, was parked on a hill. While Scott was inside a house, his two dogs Luna and Roscoe were left in the truck.

"I got around to the front of the house where the truck was, and it's like not there," he said. "And I was like 'did I get towed?' and I just thought no it didn't."

One of the dogs put the car into gear and they took off.

"Approximately three blocks down a hill," Tulsa firefighter Clay Ayers said.

The dogs missed drivers on Riverside Drive, runners on the trail and narrowly missed landing in the Arkansas River.

The truck was stopped by the brush along the river. The vehicle was badly damaged. Roscoe and Luna were uninjured, and were let go with a warning.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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