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7 Legendary Monsters of South America

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It should be no surprise that a continent with extremely high mountains, extensive waterways, and dense rainforests filled with undiscovered species would have many legends of monsters. This is just a brief overview of some of South America's monsters. These legends are often known in more than one nation, with different names for the monsters.

1. Yacumama

The Yacumama is an ancient sea monster that lives in the Amazon River. It's a giant snake with a horned head, sometimes described as up to 160 feet long! The Yacumama engorges itself with water that it uses to spray and stun its prey. In modern times, anacondas in the Amazon rainforest have been described as up to 62 feet long, so there may very well be a real-live version of the Yacumama lurking in the wild. However, anyone encountering such an animal is not liable to stay around long enough to accurately measure it.

2. Cuero

El Cuero means "cow hide." The Chilean monster of that name lives in Lake Lacar in the Andes, and resembles a splayed hide with a hairless head and backbone. The legend may have arisen from sightings of freshwater stingrays, although El Cuero is larger and has eyes on stalks, as well as claws. It also has a mouth protruding from its midsection through which it sucks blood from its victims. In the Amazon region, a similar monster is called the Hueke Hueke, which is also described as a splayed hide, without the blood-sucking proboscis.

3. Hombre Caiman

El Hombre Caiman (the Alligator Man) haunts the coast of Colombia. According to legend, he was a human in love with a woman whose father, a rice merchant, did not approve. El Hombre ate rice in a restaurant and saw his love swimming in the sea, and left to join her. He repeated this habit day after day, until he became an alligator and the two swam away forever. Better finish all your rice, or El Hombre Caiman may come for your wife!

4. Encantado

Amazônia, os bichos / the animals

The Encantado (also known as the Mohana) is a dolphin, but one with evil powers. From Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader:

Encantado means "enchanted one" in Portuguese and refers to a special kind of boto, or long-beaked river dolphin native to the Amazon, that can take human form. Encantados are curious about humans and are especially attracted to big, noisy festivals, which they often attend as musicians, staying in human form for years. How can you recognize one? Look under its hat: They always have bald spots that are actually disguised blowholes. Encantados are usually friendly, but they occasionally hypnotize and kidnap young women and take them back to the Encante, their underground city. Sometimes the women escape and return...pregnant with an Encantado baby.

The legend sounds like a tale told to children to warn them away from dangerous waters -- and to warn young women away from musicians with bald spots. Photograph by Flickr user Luciana Christante.

5. Maricoxi

The Maricoxi is a South American ape-man, possibly analogous to Bigfoot, described by explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett (before he mysteriously disappeared) as enormous hairy savages that threatened his party with bows and arrows, but could not speak except for grunts. The Maricoxi fled when fired upon. Several types of Maricoxi have been described, ranging from dwarf-sized to 12 feet tall.

6. Huallepen

The Huallepen or Guallipen is a Chilean chimera with the head of calf, the body of a sheep, and twisted feet. The monster lives in rivers and lakes, and will mate with livestock, producing deformed offspring. Even the sight of the Huallepen can cause a pregnant woman to bear a deformed child.

7. Madremonte

La Madremonte (Mother Mountain) is a Colombian spirit reminiscent of the Irish Banshee. This large woman with bulging, glowing eyes lives in the forest. Her clothing is made of leaves and moss. Madremonte controls the weather and causes invaders to her territory to lose their way. The closest most people get to her is to hear her screams and wails coming from the woods on a dark night. See a video of La Madremonte in Spanish.

This list would be much longer if I could read Spanish or Portuguese better. Read the entire series on Legendary Monsters.

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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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