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5 Other Kinds of Sniffing Dogs

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Yesterday a story surfaced about authorities finding $3 million in cash on a bus bound for Mexico. How did they find such a large sum of money hiding on the bus? With a cash-sniffing dog. Wait, dogs can sniff out cash? Sure, they can. Since carrying giant sums of cash is often a good indication that chicanery is afoot, law enforcement agencies throughout the world use dogs to help catch couriers for drug, arms, and counterfeiting rings. Last December a single cocker spaniel found around a quarter of a million dollars worth of nefarious cash at Milan's airport over just a two-day span.

Yes, dogs can find almost anything. Their noses contain far more olfactory receptors than humans' sniffers do, and the receptors are situated perfectly along the main airstreams of the pups' noses. Sure, you already knew that detection dogs were able to sniff out drugs, bombs, and corpses, but what else can a well-trained pooch find using only his nose?

1. DVDs

Take a walk in any major urban area, and it won't be long before you run across someone peddling bootleg DVDs. These black-market discs hit the street market so quickly that they might even hit a city before a film gets a theatrical release there, so movie studios and theaters take huge losses when patrons buy a flick on the street instead of shelling out ten bucks for a ticket. That's why in 2006 the film industry introduced the world to Lucky and Flo, the world's first DVD-sniffing dogs.

A broad alliance of film groups including the MPAA and the Federation Against Copyright Theft fronted the cash so the two black Labrador retrievers could learn the unique smell of a polycarbonate disc. At first, the pair had some trouble when they started work at the FedEx hub at London's Stansted Airport. A counterfeit DVD smells just like a legit one, so the dogs were alerting their handlers any time they found a package that had any DVD in it.

Gradually, though, they got the hang of finding the counterfeit loot. While on loan to the Malaysian and Philippine governments in 2007, Lucky and Flo uncovered 1.8 million counterfeit DVDs, a discovery that so enraged a Malaysian organized crime syndicate that the dogs allegedly had a $30,000 bounty on their heads. Luckily, they escaped unscathed and are still out there searching for bootlegged copies of Miss March.

2. Whether a Cow's in Heat

There's very little romance involved in commercial cattle breeding. For the most part, the cow is artificially inseminated, so the bull's not even around to make awkward excuses about why it's not going to call. Given this impersonal system, breeders need to know when the perfect time to inseminate the cow is, and dogs can help. Since a cow's physical chemistry changes slightly when she's in heat, a dog can sniff out the differences and alert a farmer that the time is right to open the door to the semen freezer. How good are dogs at telling when a cow's in heat? According to a quote Professor Lawrence J. Myers of Auburn University gave the New York Times, the canines are even better at picking the right time than bulls are.

3. Insects

No one wants to buy a house, have it pass an inspection, and then find out the place is rife with termites, bedbugs, or another pest. Dogs can use their noses to help alleviate this problem. After extensive training that can run up to $15,000 per pooch, dogs can help homebuyers and pest control companies by sniffing around walls and baseboards to look for termites or bedbugs. Once a dog has found the offending insects, exterminators can take care of the problem, then bring their canine friend back in for a second pass to make sure the bugs are really gone. Here's a video of a beagle on the job searching for bedbugs:

4. Cell Phones

We don't ordinarily think of cell phones as the sort of menace that needs to be rooted out quickly and efficiently, but they're a major headache for prison officials. Prisoners who have contraband phones can continue coordinating illegal activities from their cells, badger witnesses, and plot escapes. Thanks to their various uses, inmates tend to be pretty crafty with where they stow their phones. These hiding places might fool a human official, but a dog can sniff them out with ease. According to an October 2008 news story, Virginia and Maryland have been using phone-finding dogs in their prisons, and Florida recently debuted Razor, a young Malinois who can sniff out prisoners' phones.

5. Cancer

dog-marine.jpgThis one's still in its early stages, but many researchers are optimistic that a well-trained dog can detect cancer in humans. The basic logic is very similar to the cows-in-heat example; a cancerous cell might excrete chemicals that aren't ordinarily found in the human body but can be detected by a dog. Theoretically, the dog could take a whiff of a person's urine or breath and figure out if the patient had certain types of cancer. If the dogs could reliably make this diagnosis early on in a patient's illness, physicians would be able to better manage the disease. Marine, a black lab from Japan, is thought to be particularly adept at sniffing out cancer, so last year scientists starting cloning her to create a larger army of cancer-smelling canines.

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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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