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めめめ ‏@mememe_sh

The Weird Week in Review

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めめめ ‏@mememe_sh

Please Do Not Feed This Cat

A 7-11 store in Kanto, Japan, has reached its limit over a known shoplifter. The store posted a sign with a picture of the perpetrator, a cat described as “three-apples-tall, black, and walks in an aloof manner.” The cat has been helping himself to cat food from the store for some time. The sign reads, in part:

We need your help
Please do not feed this cat.
It enters the store and shoplifts cat food.
We told the cat that it was banned from the store but it didn’t listen.
Thank you for your cooperation

You’d think that feeding the cat would actually stem the crime wave, but what do I know? He may be selling the cat food on the streets for meth or something. A picture of the sign has been retweeted 19,000 times.

The Vending Machine Incident

Robert McKevitt of Spirit Lake, Iowa, worked at a warehouse in Milford. One night, he put a dollar in a vending machine to get a Twix bar, but the candy would not drop. It teetered on the very end of the hook. McKevitt banged on the machine, then rocked, it, but it was no use. So he went and got a forklift, and allegedly lifted and dropped the vending machine several times, which caused it to release three candy bars. He was fired from the job five days later. At McKevitt’s unemployment benefits hearing, he said he never dropped the machine, but used the forklift to set it back in place after rocking it. He said he’s heard that the company now has all-new vending machines. McKevitt was denied unemployment benefits.

Rampaging Elephant Destroys House, Then Saves Infant

In the Purulia district of West Bengal, india, a rogue elephant has villagers terrified after killing at least three people and destroying 17 homes in the past year. The animal returned Monday evening and began to wreck Dipak Mahato’s home. It broke through a wall, but stopped when it heard the cries of the family’s 10-month-old baby laying in the crib. The elephant carefully used its trunk to pick up the debris covering the child. The elephant then turned and left, walking away calmly. The little girl was taken to the hospital with external injuries and is expected to recover fully.

Epic Spelling Bee Ends

Saturday, the Jackson County, Missouri, Spelling Bee finally came to an end -after two weeks and more than 90 rounds of elimination. Or actually, attempts at elimination. The final two contenders, fifth-grader Sophia Hoffman and seventh-grader Kush Sharma, went 66 rounds and spelled their way through the entire list of available words during the initial spelling bee in February. Officials called a delay while they gathered more words. Two weeks later, the two students went another 30 rounds to decide a winner.

"It took us an hour to find more words," head judge Kaite Stover, a librarian at the Kansas City Public Library Central Branch, told Carter of the competition's first day, on Feb. 22. "And we were looking for words that were not completely archaic and uncommon."

But Hoffman, 11, and Sharma, 13, answered the challenge each time, relying on their knowledge of word origins and prefixes to see them through. After more than five hours, organizers threw up their hands to set up today's event.

The judges brought a fresh batch of 200 words to bear Saturday, from a list provided by the Scripps National Spelling Bee. They also had around 60 backup words just in case they're needed, the library says.

In the end, Hoffman was eliminated by the word “stifling,” and Sharma correctly spelled “definition” and will advance to the national bee. But officials should start preparing now because both students will still be eligible to compete next year.

Man Trapped in Bathtub Smashed by Car

Gary Dean Melton was taking a peaceful bath at his home in Oklahoma City Sunday afternoon when he suddenly found himself in a traffic accident. A Volkswagen driven by Jeremy Stewart came crashing through the brick wall of the house, smashing porcelain in the bathroom, and pinning Melton under the rubble. Stewart had fallen asleep while driving. Firefighters pulled the car out of the house and freed Melton. Melton was taken to a hospital with a large cut on his leg. Stewart was given an energy drink and a ticket for distracted driving. His insurance company will not be pleased.

Cat Terrorizes Family

A family in Portland, Oregon, was held hostage in a bedroom by their 22-pound cat Lux. The cat had attacked and scratched Lee Palmer’s 7-month-old baby and threatened the rest of the family. Palmer called 911.

Dispatchers stayed on the phone while the couple locked themselves — along with their baby and the family dog — in a bedroom, Simpson said.

Owner Lee Palmer told dispatchers the 4-year-old male cat "has a history of violence," and had scratched his 7-month old son in the forehead.

Palmer said he tried to get the cat off his son: "I kicked the cat in the rear, and it has gone over the edge. He's trying to attack us -- he's very hostile. He's at our door; he's charging us."

Police responded and were able to wrestle to cat into a carrier with a dog snare. The 911 recording can be heard at the Oregonian.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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