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Four Fathers on Father's Day

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This Sunday, we pay tribute to fathers of all types: biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster dads, and father figures. Hard-working pop would certainly appreciate the efforts of these four patriarchs of the animal kingdom:

Lion Around

Frazier was circus lion from Mexico, and by the time he turned 20 years of age, he'd seen better days. Almost toothless, his tongue lolled out of his mouth and his skin hung on his emaciated frame. In 1970, he was donated to Lion Country Safari in California to live out his final days. To everyone's surprise, Frazier was "adopted" by a pride of lionesses that had until that time had rejected the attention of all the park's male lions. Not only did these attentive females bring Frazier his food and prop him up to walk (one lioness on each side of him), they tended to his other lionly needs. Frazier sired 30 cubs during his first year at the reserve, and continued to be just as prolific the rest of his life. He passed away in 1972 due to natural causes (if you count "exhaustion" among those causes).

Horsing Around

fd2.jpgAny woman who has borne children would probably agree that if Life was fair, humans would be more like the seahorse. In the underwater world of the seahorse, it's the male that gets to carry the eggs and birth the babies. And "“ get this - he actually competes with other males for the honor! They stage contests of brute strength (well, as strong as an inch-long creature can be) and engage in exhibitions of tail-pulling and wrestling to impress the female. He also fills up his egg pouch with water and then expels it as forcefully as he can, trying to prove his fitness and worthiness. (Paging Dr. Freud!) Once the female selects a worthy male, she deposits her eggs in his pouch and leaves him to gestate for three weeks. During that time the pregnant papa doesn't venture far away from his nesting spot, and the only food he eats is whatever happens to float by within his reach. The female, meanwhile, is free to go off and gorge herself wherever she can find the best chow. Seahorses are monogamous, so Mama does return home each night to provide a bit of prenatal care (like "fanning" the eggs so they stay clean and get sufficient oxygen). When the male goes into labor, the contractions usually last 72 painful hours, during which time most of the color drains from him and he turns pasty white (and there is no starfish nearby encouraging him to "breathe.") After he finally expels the babies, this glutton for punishment shows off his pouch and begs the female to impregnate him once more.

Dux in Tux

fd3.jpgThe Emperor Penguin is the largest penguin in the world - they grow up to three feet tall and live in the frigid waters of the Antarctic. When the time comes to mate in May and June, the male penguins hop out of the water in large groups and head inland, marching in single file. They meet up with the females and proceed to engage in a traditional mating ritual. The female will then lay her egg (usually only one per penguin) and hand them off to the male. Papa places the egg on top of his feet, and covers it with a large layer of belly fat called the "brood flap." Mama then takes off and forages for the next two to three months, while Papa penguin stands still and keeps the egg warm. As many as 1,000 penguins will huddle together in an area called a "rookery", keeping each other warm, standing in the same spot while the temperature plunges to -80°F until the egg hatches. The male doesn't eat anything during this time, and he usually loses up to half of his body weight by the time the chick is hatched. When the chicks do emerge, they're hungry, so dad has to regurgitate what little he has left in his stomach to feed them. The mothers return shortly after the chicks are hatched and take over the feeding and nurturing chores. The fathers have become quite maternal by this point and are at first reluctant to part with their charges, but they soon realize that they're starving and they hand off junior to mom so they can go and gorge themselves.

Fox Rocks!

fd4.jpgDon't tell their wild canine counterparts (like the wolf and coyote), but the red fox gets just as gooey over children as your average human father. When mama gives birth to her pups, she is unable to leave the den for several weeks, so papa fox brings her food every four to six hours. Once the pups are mobile, researchers have observed papa foxes delighting in romping and playing with their offspring. When the pups are about three months old, it's time to teach them the harsh reality of life, and their daddies are there to instruct them. About the time mom stops nursing, dad will bring food close to the den and cover it with twigs or leaves and teach their offspring how to forage. As the pups grow older and learn to find food on their own, papa ups the tutelage and starts pouncing on them as they dine to teach them the danger of predators.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]