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The Quick 10: 10 Creatures People Didn't Think Existed

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In the span of less than a week, there's been news that Bigfoot and el Chupacabra may have been discovered. At this rate, Nessie is going to pop up next week and the Mothman will knock on someone's door in West Virginia and ask to borrow a cup of sugar.

I wanted to do today's list on animals that were thought to be mythical but ended up being real; however, I couldn't find that many. So it's a combined list of that and animals that were thought to be extinct but were rediscovered at some point. Those types of animals are called Lazarus species, by the way: a rather fitting name.

1. The Okapi

The Okapi is the mascot of the International Society of Cryptozoology because it was thought to be a myth until 1902. It was even called the African unicorn, which goes to show you just how outrageous people thought this animal was. They're now found in most zoos, but don't let that fool you - not many of them exist in the wild. It was 2008 before a motion-triggered camera in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo caught the first-ever photo of an okapi in the wild.

2. The Devil Bird

Until 2001, this diabolical bird was mere legend. The Devil Bird tale began in Sri Lanka, where the shrill, human-like shriek of a bird they called "Ulama" was said to predict the death of a loved one. When the Spot-bellied Eagle-owl was discovered 13 years ago, researchers quickly realized that it matched the description of the Devil Bird quite closely.

3. The Kraken

A lot of people believe that what sailors once referred to as the kraken was really just a giant squid. Well, not "just": One account said the kraken was the size of a floating island. According to some estimates, the female giant squid can grow to be up to 43 feet long, so the size of a small island wouldn't be unrealistic. After centuries of kraken tales, the only evidence we had that the giant squid even existed were carcasses that had washed up on shores. In 2004, scientists finally took the first pictures of a living, fully-grown giant squid. Just two years later, researchers were able to capture film of one moving.

4. The Coelacanth

This guy was thought to be extinct for about 65 million years until it was rediscovered near the east coast of South Africa in 1938. They weigh about 176 pounds on average and can be as long as 6.5 feet (though there's one account of a 15-footer). Coelacanth have since popped up in waters near Tanzania and Indonesia, among other places, proving that some species still exist, even when we've written them off for millions of years.

5. The Platypus

For a long time, people thought the idea of a platypus was laughable. And it kind of is - when you think about it, a semi-aquatic poisonous mammal that lays eggs and has the beak of the duck and the tail of a beaver does seem a little far-fetched. When a body of this odd animal was finally brought forth as proof, it was assumed by the entire academic community that a jokester taxidermist had sewed the body parts of various animals together for a laugh.

6. Giant Earthworms

You know, I think this guy could stay extinct - it's been said that the Giant Palouse Earthworm can grow up to three feet in length. Discovered in 1897, the worm was thought to be extinct by the 1980s. It has, however, been sighted several since then. The most recent was in 2010, and to the disappointment of Tremors fans everywhere, was only a foot long. If you want to go Giant Palouse Earthworm hunting, I suggest you start in eastern Washington and Idaho. Bring a shovel, because it can burrow up to 15 feet in the ground. 

7. The Takahe

Meet the takahe, a flightless bird from New Zealand that we thought went extinct in 1898. An expedition in 1948 revealed that a colony of them were still living on South Island. Only 224 birds are known to exist now - it was 225, but a Department of Conservation employee accidentally shot a Takahe when he mistook it for the Pukeko. (Happens to the best of us.)

8.Bermuda Petrel

Much like the Devil Bird, the Bermuda Petrel, also known as the cahow, has an incredibly creepy call. It's even said that early Spanish settlers avoided the Bermudan islands instead of inhabiting them because they thought the calls were demons, roaming from island to island. This national bird of Bermuda was thought to be extinct for 330 years, until an ornithologist discovered 18 nesting pairs of them in Castle Harbour in 1951. As of 2005, the global population of the birds was about 250. 

9. Komodo Dragons

Though they're a staple at many zoos these days, Komodo dragons were thought to be completely mythical for many centuries. Not because of the "dragon" moniker, but because people were describing it as a "land crocodile." It wasn't until 1912 that a photo and a preserved skin proved their existence. Zoologists set out on an expedition to find out more in 1926; the trip resulted in 12 carcasses and 2 live specimens. Three of these can still be found at the American Museum of Natural History.

10. The Thylacine

Our last example is one that doesn't quite fit the category of Lazarus species, because it hasn't officially been rediscovered yet. The Thylacine, AKA the Tasmanian Wolf, the Tasmanian Tiger or the Tassie Tiger, looks like a cross between, you guessed it - a wolf and a tiger. But it was actually a marsupial and had a pouch. It could also open its jaws up to 120 degrees. Tasmanian Tigers were present in Tasmania until the 1930s, when they were hunted to near extinction after the discovery that they were killing livestock. "Benjamin," the last one on the record books, was given a home at the Hobart Zoo in 1933. He died three years later. People claim to spot the Thylacine on a fairly regular basis in Tasmania, Australia, and Indonesia, and Ted Turner once offered $100,000 to anyone who could prove its existence. Still, one has yet to be caught or photographed, so it remains officially extinct.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise stated. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]