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Animal Magnetism: 9 Critters that owe their names to celebrities

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Having a street or a college dorm named after you has never seemed that impressive to me. You simply drop an overflowing briefcase on the right desk, and it's basically a done deal. And while having a theme park or a capital named after you (Dollywood? Monrovia?) is certainly more remarkable, nothing seems as impressive to me as winning the hearts of those surly biologists, who have the power to name a creature after you forever. The following are just a few of the lucky animals to have been blessed with celebrity names.

cover.gif1. Gary Larson
The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson has a biting louse (Strigiphilus garylarsoni) named for him. According to Wikipedia, Larson wrote, "I considered this an extreme honor. Besides, I knew no one was going to write and ask to name a new species of swan after me. You have to grab these opportunities when they come along."

2. Bill Gates
Believe it or not, Microsoft's main man has a Costa Rican flower fly named for him (Eristalis gatesi). When I was thumbing through my internet, I saw several places claim inner_img_f8de6bbdc2ccf4af.pngthat the honor was thanks to his "contributions to dipterology." I'm guessing that means financial contributions, and not field work, or the effects of Microsoft Word on the discipline. But you can never be sure with these things.

3. Paul Allen

Not to be outdone, his sidekick Paul Allen also has a fly named for him (Eristalis alleni). Somehow Allen ended up with the prettier of the two species, perhaps in compensation for his slightly smaller bank account. [see pic at top]

4. Harrison Ford
If you're in the mood to catalog Harrison Ford's many accomplishments, you should know031212harrisonfordi.jpg that he has not one, but two species named for him. That's right, Han Solo himself lays claim to both a spider (calponia harrisonfordi) and an ant (pheidole harrisonfordi), thanks to his involvement in conservation work and narration of documentaries. As of yet, there's been no motion to name any snakes after him, though.

BECKER_Boris_1989_SF_L.jpg 5. Boris Becker

Being an Ivan Lendl fan, I was a little disturbed by Boris Becker's Bufonaria borisbeckeri, a bursid sea snail. Still, that was so many Wimbledons ago, and I can't hold a grudge forever. After all he's done for the game, I think the least he deserves is a sea snail.

6. James Brown

Talk about putting the might back in mites! Nothing shakes like the Funkotriplogynium iagobadius. james-brown.jpgAccording to my web research, the naming is definitely superbad: Iago = James, badius = brown. Who said taxonomists don't got soul?

7. Jerry Garcia

I wasn't that surprised to learn that Elvis has a wasp named after him, or that the Beatles have a shaggy nematode named after them thanks to their moptops, but whodathunk Jerry Garcia would have an insect in his honor? In any case, it's pretty funny that some pot-smokin' taxonomist decided to name the wood 'roach' cryptocercus garciai after the high-flyin' Grateful Dead guitarist.
Bush&Cheney&Rumsfeld.jpg8. The Current Administration
Apparently, these names aren't always flattering. I was kind of shocked to learn that some scientists wear their politics on their labcoat sleeves... and even worse, that they use their powers to poke fun! Such was the case with Agathidium bushi, A. cheneyi and A. rumsfeldi, which are now all scientific names for types of slime mold beetles.

9. Hugh Hefner
Of course, sometimes the admiration, the species and cleverness tie up really nicely, as in Hef's case. The Playboy magazine founder has an endangered rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri) named for him. I once read an interview where Hugh Hefner revealed that his best pick-up line was "Hi, I'm Hugh Hefner." Perhaps the line will help the endangered bunnies mate like, well, rabbits.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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