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6 Unexpected Uses For Animal Dung

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Get excited! From fertilizer to fuel to flaming baggies on doorsteps, you probably know all the standard uses for dung. But apparently there's a whole world of crap you don't know. The following are 6 unexpected ways to make the most of animal dung.

1. Crocs and Birth Control

In 2000 BC, Egyptian physicians recommended using pessaries of crocodile dung as a spermicide. While this ancient birth control method is no doubt unavailable at your local pharmacy, you can probably ask your local crocodile to provide it under the table.

2. Elephants and Paper Products

elephant.jpgSince elephants only digest 45% of their food, and the waste product is mostly fiber, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Northern Thailand has developed a method for making elephant dung into paper. The paper is later cut and fashioned into handmade notebooks. Amazingly, an elephant can generate enough dung to make 115 pages of paper a day (or an 1/8th of a Stephen King novel).

As for the process, papermakers boil the fibers for sterilization before spinning and framing them into paper. Of course, elephants aren't the only ones getting into the stationery business. In Thailand, Panda Poop Paper is also quite popular, and the Welsh company Sheep Poo Paper has also managed to make paper from, you guessed it, sheep dung.

Got stockpiles of llama, bat, moose or flying squirrel droppings? Read on...

3. Llamas to Fight Pollution

llamas.jpgOddly enough, in Bolivia, llama dung is being used to combat pollution in the water supply from abandoned mines. The microbes living in the dung neutralize the acidic water and remove dissolved metals like iron, neutralizing the pH of the water. This filtration method isn't unique to Bolivia, though. The technique was originally developed in the United Kingdom through use of cattle and horse manure.

4. Bats to Fight Wars

batcave1.jpgUp until World War I, bat caves were essential resources, providing American soldiers with materials for gunpowder and explosives. That's because dried bat guano consists largely of saltpeter (potassium nitrate). In fact, it's been used by the United States as early as the War of 1812 for making gunpowder. Bat droppings also played a major role in prolonging the Civil War. During the conflict, nearly every substantial Gray Bat cave in the South was harvested for its guano, and the Confederacy relied on these caves as a source for saltpeter long after supply lines were cut off.

5. Moose Droppings for Tourists

moosepoopearrings.jpgMoose droppings are made into souvenirs in Alaska, Maine, Colorado and Canada. In fact, Talkeetna, Alaska has an annual Moose Dropping Festival every July. Highlights of the event include the Moose Dropping Drop Game, where numbered nuggets of moose dropping are tossed out of a helicopter and participants place bets on where they will land. There's also a Moose Poop Toss Game. And bagpipers. Really! Typical moose poop souvenirs include Moose Poop earrings, Moose Nugget swizzle sticks, Moose Poop tie tacks, and Moose Poop mugs.

6. Flying Squirrel Cures

flyingsquirrel.jpgWu Ling Zhi, or Feces Trogopterori Seu Pteromi, is flying squirrel dung used in Chinese medicine for abdominal pain, childhood nutritional deficiencies, and certain insect or snake bites. The primary use for flying squirrel crap, though, is alleviation of female reproductive system problems such as post-partum abdominal pain and menstrual cramps. Described as bitter, sweet, and warm, it's served in a decoction (steeped, like tea). Interested in trying flying squirrel dung? Unfortunately, it's banned in the United States. Stick to ibuprofen.

Previously on mental_floss:

Quiz: Match The Drug To Its Creepy Side Effect
Five Disorders That Make For Scary Slumbering
Strange Gravestones
Five Great Prison Escapes
A Surprisingly Long List Of People Who've Attempted Suicide
Five Ballpark Promotions That Went Wrong

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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