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8 Things You Need to Know About Lemurs!

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Lemurs are exceptionally strange creatures, with their huge, reflective eyes, long tails and somewhat human-like hands. While you may be most familiar with the ring-tailed lemur—they're the most common at zoos—there are a whole lot of the buggers you've probably never even seen before. Here are a few facts you'll definitely want to know about them.

1. They Come in Lots of Flavors

There are over fifty species and around one hundred subspecies of lemurs and the diversity of these animals is amazing. Some are nocturnal, some are diurnal. Some are antisocial, like the Aye aye, and others are highly social like the ring-tailed lemur "“who are so social they enjoy huddling together and forming what is known as a "lemur ball." Lemur sizes also vary between the one ounce pygmy mouse lemur and the 22 pound indri. There were even some larger species of lemurs weighing up to 530 pounds, but these became extinct after humans began settling on the island as early as 300 BC.
Today, most lemurs prefer to stay off the ground. The exception is the ring-tailed lemur, which spends a lot of time on the ground sunning itself. When on the ground, some lemurs prefer to hop on their back legs and others walk on all four feet. Interestingly, they can easily create hybrid lemurs and many species have crossbred while living in captivity.

2. They Love Their Mothers

If you liked the character of King Julien from Madagascar, you may be disappointed to learn that he's not completely realistic "“and not because of his wacky character design or erratic behavior. Lemur societies are almost all matriarchal. This isn't only rare amongst primates, but among mammals in general. The only other mammal to consistently demonstrate female dominance is the hyena.

The matriarchal society has left scientists scratching their heads. Because lemurs of both sexes are about the same size, they should be equally capable of fighting. So, why they are so strongly dominated by females? A recent theory introduced by Amy Dunham reasoned that the dominance comes down to the fact that females need more resources in order to birth and raise babies, and thus, they are willing to fight harder to get food and resources. Because fighting can be costly to the males, they may see it as beneficial to lie back and let the females take more of the resources.

3. They Occasionally Get Into "Stink Fights"

Lemurs, particularly the ring-tailed lemur, are big on talking. The ring-tailed lemur is the most vocal primate and uses its vocalizations to raise alarm. But screeching is by no means the only way these animals communicate. They also use their scent glands on their feet and butts to leave odors on areas they have been. Male ring-tailed lemurs even get in "stink fights" by rubbing their tails in their own scents and then shaking it at their opponent. The large, bushy tails of the lemurs can also be used for waving at one another from a long distance.

4. They Are NOT Evil

Aye ayes are some of the most unique species of lemurs. They're often compared to woodpeckers for their ability to penetrate wood in order to extract delicious bugs within "“only rather than using a beak, these guys use their long middle finger to pull out insects after gnawing a hole in the bark. Unfortunately, their distinctiveness has caused them quite a bit of trouble with suspicious natives. A large number of the Malagasy people believe they are an evil omen and a symbol of death. The belief is that when the Aye aye points its long middle finger at someone they've been marked for death. As a result, it is actively hunted (which may contribute to its extinction).

To make matters worse, the Aye aye seems to have very little fear of humans and has been known to walk right through villages "“suspicious villagers often say this means a villager will die unless the animal is murdered on the spot. The reality is that the Aye aye are little more than strange, antisocial creatures. While they aren't afraid of humans, they also won't do harm to them. They just want what any antisocial primate wants "“to be left alone.

5. They're Really, Really Smart

Lemurs are one of the more overlooked groups of primates. Humans tend to focus on apes and monkeys, but lemurs not only share our trait of opposable thumbs, they're also intelligent. Lemurs have the ability to learn patterns, and they even have object discrimination skills. They're also capable of learning tasks that are often too complex for apes and monkeys, like organizing sequences from memory and performing simple arithmetic. They can also be trained to use tools.

6. They Like to Travel by Raft

Lemurs only live on the African island of Madagascar. But how did they get there? Research shows the animals did not arrive on the island until after it broke off from the African continent. Scientists believe they rafted across the ocean on large clumps of vegetation. Evidence shows the African ancestors of lemurs were largely wiped out due to competition with other primates like monkeys and apes, however the Madagascar locals had none of this competition and thrived as a result. They did so well they were able to evolve into a plethora of different species.

7. You May Recognize Me From Such Fine Shows As"¦

Lemurs were largely underappreciated in pop culture until recently. PBS has a kid's show called Zoboomafoo based around a main lemur character of the same name. Lemur Street, known as Lemur Kingdom in the states, was a twenty episode serious based on two groups of ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar "“it was to Meerkat Manor what Wife Swap was to Trading Spouses: different creatures, same concept. Even famed author William Burroughs took a shot at popularizing lemurs with his 1991 novella Ghost of Chance, where the main character discovers a utopia based around the protection of Madagascar land and the lemurs. And of course, there's the movie Madagascar, that certainly boosted their PR as well.

8. They Need Help

Picture 2Most lemurs are either endangered or threatened wildlife, and many species of lemurs have already gone extinct. This isn't just bad news for the lemurs, but also for everyone and everything relying on the natural Madagascar ecology. Lemurs are crucial to the survival of the island's flora and fauna because they help disperse seeds from all of the variety of fruits they eat. Without the work of the lemurs, the forests would die. Unfortunately, the Malagasy people have increasingly taken to slash-and-burn farming in an effort to earn money. This not only puts lemurs in danger due to forest destruction, but it also makes them more likely to attempt to steal from farms (and then get killed in the process). While it's illegal to kill lemurs, enforcement of this law is practically impossible in a country as poor as Madagascar and the animals are in serious harm of complete eradication unless something drastic is done.

Images courtesy of Tambako's gorgeous Flickr page.

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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]