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The Bigger They Are: 10 Ice Age Giants

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The Pleistocene Era began 1.8 million years ago and ended roughly 10,000 years ago. During that period were several Ice Ages. Many giant sized animals and birds that seem familiar to us (because they resemble modern animals) roamed the earth. They became extinct, possibly due to environmental conditions or disease, or possibly because they were hunted by humans.

Irish Elk

The Irish Elk (Megaloceros) is the largest deer species ever, although it was not an elk, nor was it exclusively Irish. Megaloceros ranged across Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. The biggest specimens are seven feet tall at the shoulder and have antlers that span 12 feet! It became known as the Irish Elk because the Irish would find remains in peat bogs and display the antlers in hunting lodges as if they bagged the beast themselves. Because of its wide geographic range, it is not known when the last of these deer died out.

Giant Short-Faced Bear

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The Giant Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus simus) had the ability to run on his two long hind legs, and may have reached a running speed of 40 miles per hour! It would have been a frightening sight, as this bear stood five feet tall on four legs, but rose to 12 feet when standing up. It lived in the western US, Canada, and Alaska.

Syrian Camel

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The fossil bones of giant Syrian Camel was only discovered two years ago in central Syria. The 12-feet-tall at the shoulder bones are around 100,000 years old. Previously, scientists thought camels had only existed in the Middle East for about 10,000 years.

Giant Sloths

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The Giant Ground Sloth (Megatherium americanum) weighed five tons and stood 12 feet tall on its hind legs! Native to South America, it ate tree leaves like its descendants, the modern sloths, but was way too heavy to climb. There were several other species of large ground sloths that inhabited North America, none as large as Megatherium. Although giant sloths died out 10,000 years ago, the last species of ground sloths may have survived until 1550 AD in the Caribbean.

Saber Toothed Tiger

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There were several species of Saber Toothed Tiger (Smilodon) in both North and South America during the Ice Age. The largest, Smilodon populator lived in Brazil and had canine teeth up to seven inches long. It probably weighed about 800 pounds, the size of a modern lion. Saber toothed cats are believed to have co-existed with humans for about a thousand years, and may have been hunted to extinction.

North American Lion

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The North American Lion (Panthera leo atrox) was bigger than the Smilodon species, but hasn't gotten as much press because there are not as many fossil specimens, or maybe because they had proportionally normal sized teeth for a big cat. They were still big teeth, since the largest lions were over eight feet long! (Image: Dantheman9758)

Giant Beaver

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The Giant Beaver (Castoroides ohioensis) wins the prize for the largest rodent, at least in North America. Skeletal remains have been found indicating the animal was about nine feet long. Although they didn't have the characteristic flat tail of the modern beaver, they resembled their modern cousins otherwise.

Teratorn

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Giant Pleistocene species weren't limited to mammals. The Teratorn (Argentavis magnificens) was an ancestor of the Giant Condor with a wingspan of 19 to 28 feet! With wings folded, it stood as tall as a man and could weigh over 200 pounds. Found in Argentina, it was the largest flying bird ever known.

Mastodon

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Mastodons (Mammut americanum) were not mammoths, although both were hairy, resemble elephants, and roamed North America until ten thousand years ago. Mastodons ate from trees, while mammoths grazed on the ground. Mastodons are somewhat shorter and stockier than mammoths, reaching about ten feet tall. They weren't any larger than elephants that exist today, but they were pretty big animals anyway.

Mammoth

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The Wooly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) belonged to the same family as modern elephants, and were about the same size. They lived in Europe, Asia, and North America ranging up to the Arctic. Woolly Mammoths in the northernmost areas had hair up to three feet long, and curly tusks up to five feet long. Mammoth survived longer than other Ice Age giants, with the biggest extinction occurring about 8,000 years ago. A dwarf species survived on Wrangel Island near Siberia until about 1700 BC. (Image: Mauricio Anton)

The dinosaurs got really big, and they died out. Pleistocene mammals grew very big, and they died out. It makes you wonder... where will the human obesity epidemic lead us?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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