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Emily Cobb Photography

The Weird Week in Review

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Emily Cobb Photography

Coating on Willis Tower Skydeck's Ledge Cracks Under Tourists

The Ledge is a glass-floored observation area of the Skydeck on the 103rd floor of Chicago’s Willis Tower. Visitors can see the city beneath their feet as they step out on it. Thursday morning, a family stepped out and heard a crack under their feet. All four decks were closed immediately for inspection. A spokesman said that the cracks were only in the protective coating, not the glass floor itself. The protective coating on all four ledges was replaced the same day. The deck floors are composed of three layers of half-inch-thick glass, and were not compromised. Still, it was a scary experience for those who heard and saw the cracks occur.

Students Upset at Altered Yearbook Photos

Portraits of female students at Wasatch County High School in Utah were altered without their knowledge for the school yearbook, a fact that only became known when the finished yearbooks arrived. Sleeves were added to some portraits, necklines were raised, and tattoos removed. The students cried foul, not so much about the Photoshoppery, but because the alterations seemed to target individuals arbitrarily. Not all sleeveless pictures were altered.

But educators said the students know the dress code and there was a sign warning them that their pictures may be edited. However, the Wasatch County Superintendent admits the school erred in not applying the same rules to each student.

“We only apologize in the sense that we want to be more consistent with what we`re trying to do in that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things,” said Terry E. Shoemaker, who is the superintendent of schools for the Wasatch County School District.

This would lead a person to wonder why students were allowed to have the pictures made at all if they were violating a school dress code. There was no mention of whether any male students’ pictures were altered. Fox 13 has a news report and a photo gallery.

Man Charged for Stealing Human Skin From Hospital

Gary Dudek, of Wallingford, Pennsylvania, is accused of taking skin grafts from Mercy Philadelphia Hospital over a couple of years. Dudek is a sales representative for a company that supplies skin grafts. He has been charged for not only taking skin out of the hospital, but also for ordering skin grafts the hospital never received. Hospital officials estimate the loss at $357,000. An investigation was begun after an audit showed the loss. Officials say Dudek was observed taking the skin twice on security cameras. The skin has not been found, and no one knows why Dudek would want it.

89-year-old with Golf Club Defeats Robber with Sword

Miyo Koba of Moses Lake, Washington, has owned and operated Frank's Superette for over 60 years. She was working on Sunday when she found a stranger behind the cash register. The man demanded that Koba open the register, but she instead threatened to stab him with the scissors she was carrying. The man pulled out a three-foot-long sword, which Koba later called “his little sword.”

The suspect pushed Koba, and she fell, spotting the golf club, she said.

"I … tried to swing this club at him, and I tried to hit his head a couple of times, but I couldn't reach it," Koba told the news organization.

No matter. She went for his legs, swinging and hitting them.

The man escaped on a bicycle, cash register and sword in tow, according to KREM, but police said Koba later recovered the register nearby with the money still in it.

The feisty 89-year-old Koba apparently scared the thief too much to complete his plan. The news report includes an interview with Koba.

House Party Leads to Riot, Kidnapping Charges

Police in West Valley, Utah, went to a home about 1AM Sunday to ask partygoers to keep the noise down. But no one answered the door. Then emergency 911 began receiving calls from guests inside the house saying that they were being held against their will. Witnesses said that 20-year-old Edgar Reynoso, who lives in the house, had a gun and threatened anyone who answered the door. When police entered, a riot broke out. West Valley police called up 22 backup officers, and 25 more from other agencies. Ten people were arrested and 60 citations issued, out of an estimated 150 at the party. Reynoso, whose parents were out of town, was held on numerous charges.

Lost Man Found Carrying Stolen GPS

A 24-year-old man called 911 on Thursday morning to ask for help because he was lost and being chased by wild hogs. Police went to Deen Still Road in Chuluota, Florida, and found Andrew James Joffe walking on the side of the road. He was arrested on an outstanding warrant for driving on a suspended license. When officers searched Joffe’s backpack, they found a working GPS unit, along with other electronic equipment, cell phones, and jewelry. The GPS unit had a “home address” that was not Joffe’s. Under questioning, he admitted taking the items from a vehicle.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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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]