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Norma Brewer

The Weird Week in Review

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Norma Brewer

Courthouse Toilet Explodes

Deputy Stillwater County treasurer Norma Brewer had just left a courthouse bathroom stall when the toilet exploded, throwing shards of porcelain everywhere. Luckily, she had closed the stall door behind her and was not injured. She said it sounded like a huge bomb. The toilet had a Series 503 Flushmate III Pressure Assist system, which had been recalled in 2012. The recall was issued after Flushmate received 304 reports of explosions, some causing injuries. Over two million of the units have been sold in the U.S. and another 10,000 in Canada. Flushmate is sending someone out to replace the systems in all of the toilets at the courthouse in Columbus, Montana.

Do Not Remove Alligators from Roadway

What do you do when there’s an 11-foot alligator blocking the road? Not what Glen Bonin and his three friends tried to do when it happened in Sulphur, Louisiana.

"(We) took our shirts off, threw it on his (the gator's) face, and we were going to come from behind it and jump on it... in the process of doing that, it spun around and grabbed my hand seconds before we jumped on it," Bonin said.

The alligator then snapped at Bonin, biting his hand and sending him into a daze.

"It felt like someone was pulling my arm out. I thought I was about to lose something. It felt like it lasted forever," Bonin said.

Bonin received 80 stitches and a lesson in what not to do with an alligator.

"I've always been the kind of guy who learns the hard way," said Glen Bonin.

If you ever find yourself in this position, it’s best to call law enforcement or wildlife authorities. You might even consider using a different route until the alligator is gone. KPLC has some video footage of the gator encounter, in which it appears there was much more interaction with the animal than was necessary to unblock the roadway.

Airport Fire System Designed by Fake Engineer

The new Berlin Brandenburg Airport was supposed to open in 2012, but a problematic fire safety system that canceled the original opening date is still not operational. Now it comes to light that the man who designed the smoke extraction system for the German airport, Alfredo di Mauro, was not a qualified engineer. Di Mauro is qualified only as an engineering draftsman, but the abbreviation “Dipl.-Ing” appears on his business cards, indicating he is an engineer. Di Mauro, who was fired from the project last month, said the business cards contained a mistake, and that no one on the airport project asked if he was an engineer. However, di Mauro allegedly passed himself off as an architect in 2002 on a hospital project, a charge he denies.

It’s Raining Hay!

Reports of hay falling from the sky came from far-flung locations in the UK over the past week. A rain of hay and grass was observed in Paignton, Devon, last Thursday, followed by Sunday hay showers in Devizes, Wiltshire, Pendle, Lancashire, and Builth Wells in Mid Wales. The showers lasted up to ten minutes and appeared to come from a high altitude. Experts says it’s possible that hay cut during the recent dry weather was lifted from the ground, possibly by convection, and carried by warm thermals into the upper atmosphere. The showers of hay appear when the thermals break down.

Bear Crashes Party and Eats Cupcakes

Alicia Bishop and Glenn Merrill of Juneau, Alaska, were celebrating their child’s first birthday Wednesday when a bear fell through the skylight of their living room!

"I was literally in the room, and I heard this cracking," Merrill told the paper, describing the sound of the skylight's plexiglass creaking under the bear. "And the next thing you know, there's this bear that, I mean, literally, fell right from (the skylight). It was like one metre away from me."

Merrill told the paper he fled into an adjoining room and closed the door behind him, and Bishop said the animal feasted on her infant son's birthday cupcakes.

Bishop told the paper that she opened a door from the living room that led to the backyard and that the couple yelled at the animal until it casually walked out of their residence.

Wildlife officials estimate the bear was a juvenile male, weighing about 82 kilograms (180 pounds).

Strange Dog Appears in Locked Car

A woman in the town of Adenau, Germany, attended a religious service and returned to her car. When she unlocked it, she found a dog inside -but it wasn’t her dog! She drove the dachshund to the local police station. No one could figure out how the dog got into the car. Then another woman came into the station to report her dog missing from her car.

Here’s what happened: the two women drove the exact same model of car, and had parked beside each other. Their keys also coincidentally worked with both cars. The woman who owned the dog returned first and drove off in the wrong car -the one without her dog. Neither woman realized they had the wrong car, because the only difference was that one had a dog inside.

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

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]

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