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5 Creatures That May Not Exist, But Get Government Protection Anyway

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Dave Shealy is founder of the world's only research center dedicated to the skunk-ape (the 7-foot tall, 450-pound apes that supposedly stroll through Florida reeking of rotten eggs). He's spent much of his life trudging through the Everglades looking for signs of the creatures and has even gone so far as to call for the state of Florida to pass a law outlawing the hunting of them.

This guy is nuts, right? No matter your answer, he's not the first person to try this with the skunk apes, and certainly not the first to push for government protection of a cryptid (an animal whose existence can't be proved with scientific certainty). In Florida, the US, and even elsewhere in the world, individuals, politicians, and organizations have fought for legal protection for cryptids.

Here are five times where they've been successful.

1. Whitey

A portion of Arkansas's White River, between the towns of Jacksonport and Possum Grape, is a protected wildlife refuge. The wildlife in question? The White River Monster, a gray aquatic creature roughly the size of a boxcar affectionately known as "Whitey."

Whitey was first sighted in 1915, and has been spotted intermittently since then. In 1973, after another sighting, State Senator Robert Harvey introduced a bill that would create the White River Monster Refuge and make it illegal to harm Whitey within its boundaries. The bill was quickly signed into law by a large majority. [Image courtesy of Ozarks Magazine.]

2. Champ

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A similar river creature enjoys protection from both Vermont and New York. In the 1980s, the two states passed resolutions helping Champ, a serpent-like creature that inhabits their shared waterway, Lake Champlain. The resolutions declared Champ a protected species and made it illegal to harm him in any way. Champ's protected species status also earns him conservation funding from the Lake Champlain Land Trust.

Champ lovers are patiently waiting for Quebec, which also borders the lake, to pass a similar resolution. [Image courtesy of Heurtley.com.]

3. Bigfoot

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Speaking of the Canadians, Mike Lake, a member of the Canadian Mounted Police, petitioned the Canadian Parliament earlier this year to add Bigfoot to the country's Species at Risk Act alongside the Whooping Crane and Blue Whale. According to Mr. Lake, the reason that there haven't been many Bigfoot sightings is that the creature is endangered, and not shy like many believe.

The Skamania County Board of Commissioners in the state of Washington realized the same thing Lake did and passed an ordinance in 1969 that set a $10,000 fine and five years in prison for anyone who killed a Bigfoot in the county. [Image courtesy of Monorails.org.]

4. Migoi

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The cryptid protection trend isn't limited to North America. Plenty of countries have their own legendary creatures and their own laws protecting them. The migoi is the Bhutanese version of the Yeti, but with a few more quirks. The red haired creatures reportedly stand eight feet tall and often walk backwards or turn invisible to fool trackers and hunters. They've been part of the country's legends for centuries, and even show up in ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan texts.

In 2001, the Bhutanese government created the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, a 253 square-mile protected habitat for the migoi. The sanctuary is also home to pandas, snow leopards and tigers, but in a display of Big Government spending at its best, the Bhutanese maintain that the refuge was created specifically for the migoi and cuddly pandas are simply a bonus. [Image courtesy of Zinester.com.]

5. Nessie

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And here's our big star, the diva of the cryptid world: the Loch Ness Monster. Not only did Nessie get protection from poachers under the provisions of the Scotland's 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, which makes it illegal to snare, shoot or try to blow her up, but the old girl helped out one of her distant relatives in the process.

In the summer of 1985, the Scots received a request by the Swedish government for guidance on how it should draft formal legal protection for the Storsjo monster, the Swedish equivalent of Nessie in Lake Storsjo. The Scottish government consulted their Nature Conservancy Council, decided a lake monster would be protected under the 1981 legislation, slapped a "protected species" sticker on Nessie and advised the Swedes that "the legislative framework to protect the monster is available, provided she (or he) is identified by scientists whose reputation will carry weight with the British Museum."

The Swedish government passed legislation to protect their monster, but it was revoked a few months ago after a government watchdog group challenged the law, claiming legislation was not necessary to protect an unproven species.

Nessie is still protected to this day and no cryptids were harmed during the writing of this article.

Matt Soniak is our newest intern. (Well, he's tied.) You can learn lots more about him here, or read his own blog here.

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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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