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The Odd, Odd Octopus

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You know octopuses are strange creatures. They've always been part of our nightmares and scary stories, but that's mainly because they look so odd. The more you know about them, the stranger they seem.

Eight Limbs

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.
-Ogden Nash

We've only recently found the answer to this question. Octopuses have two legs and six arms. Good luck telling them apart, but the octopus knows! They tend to push off surfaces and crawl with the two limbs furthest back, and use the others to feed. The research originally meant to find if octopuses were right- or left-handed. They are neither, but many tend to use the third arm from the front, on both sides, for many tasks.



This post was inspired by a conversation with my daughter about anatomy, in which  she posited that without bones, we wouldn't be able to move. The octopus has no skeletal system and still moves quite well. They crawl along surfaces with their legs and arms and swim by moving with wave action or by spurting water from its mantle cavity, which is used for respiration, but can also propel an octopus at up to 20 miles per hour in larger species. The octopus' intricate muscular system plays a part in its other odd features: flexibility, suckers and camouflage ability. (image credit: Erica Simone)


There are advantages to having no skeleton. An octopus can squeeze through any opening larger than its beak, its only inflexible part. This allows an octopus to nestle inside crevices of any shape, as long at the volume is sufficient.



An octopus can change color at a moment's notice. Faster than that, actually. Tiny pigment sacs called chromatophores with up to five colors lie beneath the skin. Rings of muscle control the release of pigment to match the terrain an octopus covers, or when it decides it must blend in with the background to fool predators. Can you spot the octopus in the left picture? Watch the video.



Each sucker on an octopus tentacle has a ring of muscle that contracts when it must stick to a surface, creating a vacuum inside the seal. If a predator tries to pull it away, a "piston-like structure" inside pulls up and boosts the vacuum seal.



The only hard part of an octopus is its beak, which it uses for eating and defense. Until recently, scientists wondered how they used this one hard organ without hurting the other soft organs. Recovered beaks are composed of hard chitin, but beaks on a living squid have been observed to be very different. The chitin shows a gradual shift from unbreakably hard at the tip to softer material where it attaches to the muscles of the mouth. This gradation is believed to be present in an octopus' beak as well as squid.



In addition to its many other defenses, an octopus produces ink made of natural red melanin. It appears a dark brown when concentrated. A squirt of ink can help camouflage an animal, or distract a predator while the octopus escapes. The ink also contains tyrosinase, which irritates a predator's eyes. The few octopus species that don't produce ink tend to live in deep water, where visibility is already low.



Octopuses are highly intelligent and can learn new tasks even as adults. The learning power of an octopus is only restricted by its short life span, which ranges from six months to a few years. They often manipulate their environment in ways that suggest playing in addition to regular life tasks. In captivity, they play with toys such a Rubik's cube, and even have preferences like Louis, who is attached to a Mr. Potato Head.

Some octopus species are stranger than others. The blue-ringed octopus carries enough venom to kill ten people.  The deep-sea finned octopus glows with a blue-green light. With 300 different species, they are the masters of survival in many ways.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]