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10 Famous (or Notorious) Ducks

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My children don't watch nearly as much TV as I did at their age. I asked my daughter if she knew any famous ducks. She could only think of The Ugly Duckling! But our pop culture landscape bears the tracks of an entire flock of famous ducks.

Count Duckula

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Count Duckula began as a villainous character on the British TV show Danger Mouse. He was spun off into his own show in 1988 and imported to the US (as well as many other countries), where he was sometimes mistaken for a version of Daffy Duck. Count Duckula was a vegetarian vampire duck who could teleport to any part of the world. The show ran until 1993.

You Bet Your Life Duck

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You Bet Your Life was a game show hosted by Groucho Marx that aired on NBC from 1950 to 1960. If the contestant said the secret word (which the TV audience knew), a duck would fall from above and the contestant won $100. Why a duck? It was a reminder of the famous line from the 1929 Marx Brothers movie The Cocoanuts.

Groucho: And here is the viaduct leading over to the mainland.
Chico: Why a duck? Why a no chicken?

The Ugly Duckling

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The title character of The Ugly Duckling wasn't even a duck! The story was first published by Hans Christian Anderson in 1843, about a baby bird who is ostracized because he doesn't look nice like the other ducklings in his family. When he matures, he finds that he is really a beautiful swan. See the Disney cartoon from 1939 on video. The 1931 version inexplicably has the swan hatched from the nest of a chicken.

AFLAC Duck

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The AFLAC duck, featuring the voice of Gilbert Gottfried, has been hinting for us to buy a certain brand of insurance since 1999. He inspired a generation of toddlers to say "AFLAC" instead of "quack" when asked what a duck sounds like. AFLAC has a video gallery of the ads.

Ping

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The Story About Ping is a children's book written by Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese in 1933 about a duck who lives on a boat on the Yangtze River in China. He falls behind, misses the boat, and has to find his own way home. It's a charming story for preschoolers and early readers.

Rubber Duckie

The Sesame Street Muppet Ernie loves his Rubber Duckie. The song was sung by Jim Henson in 1970, and reached number 16 on Billboard's pop music chart in September of that year.

Howard the Duck

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The 1986 George Lucas film Howard the Duck was such a spectacular flop that the title became a metaphor for "awful movie". The jokes weren't funny and the duck character looked only real enough to make his romantic interest in Lea Thompson overly creepy.

Ferdinand

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Ferdinand was the duck in the 1995 movie Babe. He spent his time desperately scheming to make himself so useful that the farm family would never think of eating him. He crowed like a rooster every morning, until Mrs. Hoggett acquired an alarm clock.

Donald Duck

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The Disney character Donald Duck made his debut in The Wise Little Hen in 1934. His distinctive voice, which sounds thoroughly ducky but barely intelligible, made him famous. Donald is best known for losing his temper, allowing him to show off the voice without saying much of anything. He looks dapper in his sailor suit, but never wears pants, except when swimming. Donald has girlfriend (Daisy), three nephews (Hewey, Dewey, and Lewey), a rich uncle (Scrooge McDuck), and various other Disney relatives.

Daffy Duck

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The Warner Brothers character Daffy Duck is possibly the most popular duck of all. He first appeared in 1937 in the cartoon Porky's Duck Hunt. The classic Daffy was voiced by Mel Blanc, but interpreted as slightly different by each animator who drew him. He can be manic or neurotic, smart or stupid, but his understandable responses to a world that seems to be lined up against him makes him easy for audiences to relate to. See Daffy in action in the classic Chuck Jones cartoon Duck Amuck.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I could've added Baby Huey, Disco Duck, and quite a few others. Who's your favorite duck?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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