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10 Legendary Monsters of Australasia and Antarctica

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You'd think that there are enough scary animals in Australia that monstrous legends wouldn't be necessary. Apparently the deadly creatures that terrorize people on a regular basis aren't scary enough. The continent also includes New Zealand, and I slid a monster of Antarctica in here as a convenience. Ningens and Bunyips and Yowies, oh my!

1. Yara-ma-yha-who

The Yara-ma-yha-who is an Australian vampire from Aboriginal folklore. He is a short, red, uh, man, resembling a demon. He has no teeth, which is unusual for a bloodsucking vampire. The Yara-ma-yha-who waits in a tree for a victim to stop beneath, then jumps on him and sucks blood out through the octopus-like suckers the Yara-ma-yha-who has on his hands and feet. If this demon eats someone, he will take a nap and then vomit the meal back up. Luckily, the victim may still be alive! However, if the same person is victimized in this manner too many times, he will himself become a Yara-ma-yha-who.

2. The Hawkesbury River Monster

The Hawkesbury River Monster is sort of a cousin to Nessie, the Scottish Loch Ness Monster. The Hawkesbury River in New South Wales, Australia, is a very deep river, and the monster it accommodates is described as up to 24 meters long. Aboriginal paintings thousands of years old hint at sightings of the monster, which resembles a prehistoric plesiosaur. Although there are quite a few modern sightings, no one has been able to get a picture of the river monster.

3. Bunyip

A Bunyip is a spirit monster from Australian Aborigine culture. It sleeps in rivers, swamps, and billabongs during the day, but prowls the land at night, looking for people or animals to eat. Its screams can be heard for long distances. Some Aboriginals claim to have seen a Bunyip, but descriptions vary. Does it resemble a snake, a wild human, or a furry mammal? Some theorize that while the Bunyip may be legendary, the tales have been passed down for thousands of years, from back in the days when now-extinct large predators prowled Australia. See a video of a children's song featuring the Bunyip.

4. The Gippsland Phantom Cat

The Gippsland Phantom Cat is a large cat spotted in the Grampians region since the 1970s. The consensus among experts is that there have been sightings of large cats, probably feral descendants of house cats. U.S. soldiers stationed in Victoria during World War II had a pair of pumas as mascots, and some think the two animals may have been set free and then reproduced in the wild, possibly mating with feral house cats over the years. There is no conclusive evidence for this. In 2005, hunter Kurt Engel shot a large cat with a 26" tail. Mitochondrial DNA tests on the large feral cat show it was a common domestic cat species, at least on its mother's side. The Gippsland Phantom Cat is not to be confused with the Lion of Gripsholm Castle.

5. Muldjewangk

The Muldjewangk are monsters (or maybe just one monster) that inhabits the Murray River and Lake Alexandrina into which it flows in South Australia. The tales of the monster are told to keep children away from the dangerous water. One story tells of a European steamboat captain that shot a Muldjewangk, and was rewarded with a slow lingering death from creeping red blisters that covered his body. The Muldjewangk is also blamed for boat wrecks. Beware the seaweed growing in the lake -that's where the Muldjewangk hide!

6. Yowie

The Australian version of a giant ape (Bigfoot) is the Yowie. It is described as a bipedal gorilla who lives in wilderness areas (which means most of Australia). The term Yowie is also used for a legendary aboriginal animal which is not an ape, causing some confusion in conversations. The Aboriginal Yowie is thought to be a regional name for the Bunyip. Yowie hunter Paul Compton took the above photo near Glen Innes in 2007.

7. Moehau

New Zealand has its own cryptid ape-man called the Moehau, although it is also called Maero, Matau, Tuuhourangi, Taongina, and Rapuwai. The large hairy creatures which haunt the Coromandel Ranges are aggressive and are thought to be responsible for the deaths of a prospector and a nearby woman in 1882. The woman had been abducted from her home and was found with a broken neck. The prospector had been partially eaten. Moehau are the size of a normal man, with an apelike face, long shaggy hair, and extremely long fingers and sharp fingernails or claws.

8. Taniwha

The Maori monster Taniwha lives in the ocean but also lurks in the rivers, lakes, or watery caves of New Zealand. It resembles a shark, dragon, or whale, or a shapeshifter that can appear like any of those animals. This monster eats people. In some legends, the Taniwha is a personal or tribal guardian, but still a danger to outsiders. Taniwhas are named characters in many old Maori and Polynesian stories. Illustration by DeviantART member lemurkat.

9. Drop Bear

The Drop Bear is the creature that visitors to Australia are most often warned about. A marsupial native to Australia, it is a vicious carnivore that attacks its prey by hiding high in a tree and dropping onto unsuspecting tourists. Photos of a drop bear show a startling resemblance to a koala, which is how the sneaky beasts fool you into standing under their trees. Defenses against the Drop Bear include sticking a fork into your hair or smearing Vegemite behind your ears. See the Drop Bear in action in this video, or its advertising equivalent here. Photograph found at reddit.

10. Ningen

Ningen is a Japanese word meaning "human." But there's something definitely inhuman about the stories of the Ningen that live in the waters off Antarctica. These sea monsters are white and have been reported up to 30 meters long! Ningen have humanoid eyes and mouths, but descriptions of their bodies vary. They may have fins or arms and legs, or sometimes arms with fingered hands and fins instead of legs, like a mermaid. Ningen sightings may turn out to be icebergs, whales, dolphins, rays, or maybe even too much to drink.

Read the entire series on Legendary Monsters.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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