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Why Indiana Jones Was Right to be Scared of Snakes

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I, like most everyone else, am really looking forward to May 22, when the new Indiana Jones movie hits screens. Indy is the perfect hero, except for that one flaw: his fear of snakes. After some research, though, I found that he may not have been too far off in being scared of snakes. Here are some reasons he was right.

They might take over the country

It sounds like something out of a horror movie: deadly snakes slither into an unsuspecting town, slowly killing the poor citizens. Unfortunately, it's really happening. A drought in Australia earlier this year started pushing snakes into cities in search of water, where they took to biting the people they saw. The number of snake attacks went up during the drought. And not even the Americas are immune from the snake attack. In two events that would shock Captain Planet, deforestation in Brazil is making deadly snakes flee to cities, while global warming might force Burmese pythons to expand their habitat to the southern third of the United States. Ironically, extreme climate change may have created one of Indy's safe havens. Contrary to the popular St. Patrick explanation, Ireland may be snake-free because of the Ice Age. The temperatures were too cold for snakes to survive for years, and once the earth warmed up, the surrounding seas probably kept the snakes away. After all, this was long before snakes discovered air travel.

They're really, really, really deadly

snake fangs.jpg

Popular Science recently called snake venom evolution's most effective killer, which is some pretty high praise. Turns out the poison is so ninja-like, it covers every base. It can slow prey down, giving the snake a better chance to catch it, while some even contain a diuretic, so the prey leaves a trail of urine. Venom can be divided into three categories, each with their own deadly attribute. The cytotoxins break down the cells and muscles, essentially starting digestion before the prey even enters the snake's mouth. Hemotoxins go after the blood, either clotting it or destroying the red blood cells. And neurotoxins either numb or overload the nervous system. Even though these toxins are ridiculously lethal, scientists are mining them for potential cures for cancer and the venom from a Brazilian pit snake even formed the basis for ACE inhibitors.

It's in his genes (your's too)

Those hidden picture games in the old Highlights for Kids magazine may hold the key to why Indy was so scared of snakes. A recent University of Virginia study found that we may be genetically hard-wired to spot snakes. Shown a series of color photographs, both adults and children had an easier time spotting a snake among pictures of non-threatening images than a non-threatening object among pictures of snakes. The researchers also found that the same holds true for spiders, which is why these creepy crawlers freak us out so much.

snake eating deer.jpgHe searched for "snake eating" on Youtube

Searching for "snake eating" on Youtube may make you never want to eat again. You'll find an array of snake meals, from hippos to deer to eggs. The unique jaw structure of the snake allows it to swallow some enormous food. The lower jaw is unattached to the skull, only held on by muscles and tendons, allowing it to open as wide as 150 degrees. Once it traps the prey in its jaws, the snake creeps forward, pushing the food into its body, where muscles and digestive acids break it down. The knowledge that a particularly hungry snake could eat him was probably enough to turn Indy off the critters forever.

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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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May 23, 2017
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