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5 Beastly Secrets Behind Wild Kingdom

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Fifty-eight years ago today (May 28), Zoo Parade premiered on NBC. For its first five seasons, the show was broadcast from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. The series' host, Marlin Perkins, also just happened to be Lincoln Park's director. By the time Zoo Parade went off the air, Perkins was thoroughly convinced that television was in desperate need more wildlife programming, and Wild Kingdom was born.

1. Marlin Perkins Slayed the Abominable Snowman
Picture 14.pngBack when TV was limited to the networks and a handful of local stations, before there was an Animal Planet or a Crocodile Hunter, Wild Kingdom was the only place average Americans could see polar bears or hippopotami in their natural habitat from the comfort of their living rooms. The program was typically aired right after family-friendly fare like Hee-Haw or The Lawrence Welk Show. White-haired Marlin Perkins, who looked more like an insurance salesman than the zoologist that he really was, hosted Wild Kingdom during its original syndicated run from 1963 to 1985. Prior to television stardom, Perkins had gained a small amount of fame for debunking the myth of the Abominable Snowman. On an excursion to the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary, Perkins deduced that the Yeti's "large" footprints were actually made form a series of tracks made by foxes and other small animals. The tracks melted together in the sun, turning into larger shapes.

2. The Moment Everyone Remembers that Never Actually Happened

Picture 51.pngTalk to Baby Boomers who grew up watching Wild Kingdom and many of them will breathlessly recall the episode where Marlin Perkins was bitten by a poisonous snake. True, Perkins was a reptile aficionado and had kept snakes as pets since he was a child. He also never hesitated to handle non-venomous snakes on-camera in an effort to show that the slithery creatures were as harmless as kittens. Back when he was still hosting Zoo Parade, Marlin did ill-advisedly pick up a timber rattlesnake during the pre-show camera blocking. The rattler nipped Perkins on the finger and he spent three weeks in the hospital recuperating from the bite. However, all of this happened off-camera and was not filmed. Yet Perkins reported in his 1982 autobiography that he regularly met Wild Kingdom fans who reminisced about watching in horror on TV that fateful day when that rattlesnake sank its fangs into his hand.

3. Jungle Jim Fowler "“ The Guy Who Did the Grunt Work
Picture 2.pngJim Fowler graduated from Earlham College with degrees in zoology and geology. The naturalist was a well-known expert in predatory birds when he teamed up with Perkins to co-host Wild Kingdom. Jim had studied animals in the wilds of Africa and South America, and had years of experience filming them. Yet, no matter how impressive his credentials, it was always clear that he was the worker bee while Perkins ruled the hive. Perkins, nattily dressed in a safari jacket and pith helmet, rarely got his hands dirty or broke a sweat as he poked his head out from the safety of his Jeep and earnestly set the scene ("Let's watch while Jim attempts to circumcise this rabid wolverine.")

4. How Man-Eating Pythons Helped the Insurance Business
Picture 41.png No, the Bushmen of New Guinea didn't start taking out huge policies"¦ V.J. Skutt, then the CEO of Mutual of Omaha, was a conservationist at heart and he agreed with Marlin Perkins that providing TV viewers with a realistic look at animals in their natural habitat would inspire folks to get interested in ecology and wildlife preservation. Skutt decided to sponsor Perkins' new brainchild, Wild Kingdom, and the show's instant popularity surprised everyone involved. It was one of the very few syndicated series ever to be nominated for an Emmy award, and "“ more importantly "“ it made the previously little-known insurance company a household name across the country. Mutual of Omaha's annual premium income grew into the billions of dollars.

5. All Was Not What It Seemed
During those early years of Wild Kingdom, most viewers were naïve in the ways of wild animals and it never occurred to us to ask "Just how did that baby moose happen to get stuck in the mud pit at the same time a camera crew was nearby?" In 1982, the producers of the CBC series The Fifth Estate (sort of a Canadian 60 Minutes) aired an episode titled "Cruel Camera," which examined the treatment of animals in the entertainment industry. The show's host, Bob McKeown approached an 80-something Marlin Perkins for an impromptu interview, asking whether Wild Kingdom had ever interfered with nature for the sake of drama. Perkins (whom most of us still remembered as the mild-mannered man responsible for such awkward segues as "Just like the mother bear protects her cubs, Mutual of Omaha is there to protect your family"¦") first demanded that the cameras be shut off, then proceeded to punch McKeown in the face when his request was denied.

The Fifth Estate recently aired a follow-up to "Cruel Camera," and it breaks our collective heart to report that despite the supposed supervision of the American Humane Association, all these years later animals are still being exploited and abused in the name of entertainment. WARNING: This video is heart-wrenching in parts and difficult to watch, but is an important statement on behalf of those creatures who cannot speak for themselves.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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