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The Weird Week in Review

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Puppy Survives 12-mile Trip in Car Engine

A Jack Russell terrier named Betty Boop went missing from her fenced-in garden in Manchester, England, and climbed into the engine compartment of a neighbor’s car. Gavin Juliette went to pick up his mother-in-law, a 12-mile round trip, with the puppy stuck in the engine. He only noticed her when he returned home and heard barking from under the car’s hood. Gavin and the dog’s owner Gary James had to partially dismantle the engine to get Betty Boop out, and were astonished to find her uninjured.

Dad-of-three Gary, a cleaning manager, said the pup is now as happy as ever just two days after her bizarre journey.

He said: “We just couldn’t believe what had happened and it was even harder to believe how she’d survived.

“It’s a good job Gavin wasn’t going to Blackpool or he’d have probably ended up with a hot dog."

Police Forgot Password for Eight Years

An online account by the Central Vigilance Commission passes police complaints in Delhi, India, directly to the Delhi Police. Every municipal department in Delhi has a review once a year to review complaints and how they were addressed, but the police reported no complaints or resolutions for eight years. Finally, an investigation was launched into this anomaly, and it was found that the police department had never checked the online account—because they had forgotten the password! Two officers were brought in for “training,” and the account was finally accessed. There were 667 complaints waiting, many of them for years. The police department is now sorting through the messages one by one.

Drunken Joyride in an Airplane

A company that provides aerial tours of the Grand Canyon notified police in Boulder City, Nevada, that one of their airplanes was missing from the Boulder City Airport. Officers responded to find a man was taking off and landing the plane over and over. Since they could not chase him, they had to wait for a landing. On the fifth landing, they managed to arrest 47-year-old Paul Michael Weddle.

Officers watched Weddle flying “in a reckless manner,” even coming close to another plane after an abrupt turn, the report said.

Weddle wouldn’t show his hands to the arresting officer and was eventually tackled by police, the report said.

He later told officers he wanted to complete the take-off and landing portion to obtain his pilot’s license, the report said.

Weddle’s blood-alcohol content was 0.132 percent. He was taken to the hospital before being booked on charges of DUI and vehicle theft. The question arising from the incident is, how, in this era of tight security, did Weddle get into the airport?

Flying Fish Causes Aborted Flight

NOAA pilot Lt. Cmdr. Nick Toth and crew took off in a Gulfstream GIV from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. They were forced to abort the takeoff when they heard a “thunk” against the plane. They assumed they had hit a bird, as they had seen an osprey fly in front of the craft. No bird was found, but a fish was! There was a 9-inch sheepshead on the runway. Wildlife Management came to investigate. They took the fish, and a DNA sample from the plane where what seemed to be a bird strike was seen, and it turned out that the bird strike was indeed a “fish strike.” The flying fish is assumed to have been dropped by the fleeing osprey during the takeoff. At least that’s what they want us to believe.

No Pizza? Burn the Place Down!

A couple was denied service Monday night at Whirled Pies pizza shop in Eugene, Oregon. The staff decided they were too intoxicated. The angry couple left, but returned shortly after the pizza shop closed. They broke the glass on the locked door, and the employees inside called 911 and hid in the basement. The drunk couple took a curtain and stuffed it into a jar of moonshine, and then ignited the alcohol. They threw the Molotov cocktail into the restaurant. Police arrived and arrested Matthew Bossard and Leticia Kagele on charges of arson, burglary, and criminal mischief. There is no mention of what, if any, damage the burning moonshine did to the shop.

Thief on Motorized Scooter Makes Clean Getaway

Police are looking for a man who robbed a jewelry store in Henderson, Nevada. The incident was captured on security cameras.

The man was described as black, mustached and about 300 pounds. He was last seen wearing a black shirt, black jacket, blue jeans, dark blue baseball cap and black-framed glasses. They said the man was seen leaving the store on a motorized scooter.

For some reason, police did not respond to the jewelry heist in time to catch a 300-pound man on a mobility scooter.

Gun Giveaway Hopes to Draw Newcomers to Church

The Kentucky Baptist Convention is endorsing gun giveaways to draw more men to church. The Lone Oak Baptist Church in Paducah had a free steak dinner Thursday, with 25 guns of various kinds given away as door prizes. Over 1,000 people were expected. The Convention’s team leader for evangelism, Chuck McAlister, said he presided over 50 such events in the past year and saw 1,678 men make a profession of faith. Advocates see it as an opportunity to attract men who have no professed faith, and say the church should use whatever works. Others are opposed to the giveaways, particularly in Paducah, where a school shooting in 1997 left three students dead and five others injured.

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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]