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Sheila Sillery-Walsh

The Weird Week in Review

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Sheila Sillery-Walsh

Woman Photographs Alcatraz Ghost

Sheila Sillery-Walsh of Birmingham, England, took a tour of the former prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco. She snapped a quick picture of a cell block with her iPhone 5C. When she checked the picture, there was a dark figure of a female in the window of the cell door. Looking up to the real cell door, Sillery-Walsh saw no one there. The image in the photograph doesn’t resemble any of the many reported ghosts that haunt Alcatraz, and the apparition was dismissed by Alcatraz park officials. They’ve seen and heard it all before.

Firefighters Rescue Cat and Cat Rescuer

Firefighters in Erie, Pennsylvania, rarely respond to calls about a cat stuck in a tree these days. They normally tell the caller to let the cat come down by itself. But on Sunday, they responded to such a call, because a woman was also in the tree. Tara Dennis estimates she had gone 40 feet up the tree to rescue a cat that had been crying for a couple of days, but then found she couldn’t get back down. Dennis had entered the tree by climbing up on a roof first.

"I got the cat," she said. "I put it in my shirt."

She began coming down but reached a point at which she couldn't go any farther.

That's when neighbor Marty Tirak called 911. Firefighters responded a little before 1 p.m. and first carried the cat down and then assisted Dennis. Carroll said all were safe.

The report does not specify who owns the cat.

Spiders Can Catch and Devour Fish

Spiders catching fish? It happens more than you think! Entomologist Martin Nyffeler of the University of Basel in Switzerland and ecologist Bradley J. Pusey have collected reports and images of fish-eating spiders into one study. The spiders are not necessarily closely related, and they are found eating fish on every continent except Antarctica. Spiders can use surface tension to walk on the water’s surface and wait for prey, while others dive into the water or swim to chase their prey. Although the fish caught are tiny, they are still about twice the size of the spiders that eat them.

Boy Finds Mummified Body Hanging in Closet

A twelve-year-old boy went into an overgrown and abandoned house in Dayton, Ohio, to explore. He opened a closet and found a mummified body hanging by a belt! At first he thought it was a dummy, but it was the body of Edward Brunton, who hanged himself there five years ago. The boy summoned his mother, who took a look and then called police. Neighbors thought the house was abandoned, and had no idea that someone who lived there was still there. The low humidity and protection of the closet caused the body to mummify instead of decomposing. Brunton’s estranged brother identified the body, which was still recognizable.

The Birthday Paradox at the World Cup

The Birthday Paradox states that in a group of just 23 people, the odds that two of those people will have the same birthday is 50%. If the size of the group goes up to 70 people, there is more than a 99% chance that two or more of them will share a birthday -and it is likely that more than one pair will have shared birthdays.

But perhaps the best data-set of all to test this on is the football World Cup. There are 32 teams, and each team has a squad of 23 players. If the birthday paradox is true, 50% of the squads should have shared birthdays.

Using the birthdays from Fifa's official squad lists as of Tuesday 10 June, it turns out there are indeed 16 teams with at least one shared birthday - 50% of the total. Five of those teams, in fact, have two pairs of birthdays.

The list is: Spain, Colombia, Switzerland (x2), USA, Iran (x2), France (x2), Argentina (x2), South Korea (x2), Cameroon, Australia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Russia, Netherlands, Brazil, Honduras and Nigeria.

One of Argentina's pairs, Fernando Gago and Augusto Fernandez, share the same actual birth date - 10 April 1986.

The fact that soccer players were born in the same year is not at all surprising, considering the narrow age range for world-class athletes, but finding the exact results predicted by the Birthday Paradox is rather neat. BBC magazine has more details.

Bunny Rabbit Sent to Weight-loss Boot Camp

When Ian Crump and his family, of Rainham, East London, UK, adopted Snowball, the dwarf rabbit was underweight. But the family spoiled him, and now he weighs 3.65 kg (8 pounds)! That makes the 5-year-old bunny 35% overweight and a candidate for the PDSA Pet Fit Club, which accepted him for a six-month lifestyle overhaul. Seventeen pets -dogs, cats,and rabbits- are competing to be the “top slimmer” in the program. The winner will receive a year’s worth of pet food -which won’t be as much as they ate last year.

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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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