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9 Spiders and the Stars They Were Named For

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When I read that a new spider species was named Heteropoda davidbowie in honor of David Bowie, it reminded me of several other celebrities whose names were enshrined in taxonomy because there are so many new spiders being discovered as distinct species. With a little digging, even more star spiders turned up!

1. David Bowie

German arachnologist Peter Jaeger has discovered 200 species of spiders in the past decade, and has now named one of his finds after singer David Bowie. The new species, a large yellow spider in Malaysia, is called Heteropoda davidbowie. Jaeger said he named the spider to draw attention to the discovery, and to raise awareness of the endangered status of many spiders. Bowie had a 1972 album entitled The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and his 1987 tour was named the Glass Spider Tour.

2. Neil Young

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Myrmekiaphila neilyoungi is a trapdoor spider first discovered in Alabama in 2007. It was described by taxonomist and spider systematist Jason E. Bond and Norman I. Platnick of the American Museum of Natural History. Bond named the creature for Neil Young because he enjoyed his music and respected his work as an activist.

3. Orson Welles

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An entire genus of giant Hawaiian linyphiid spiders are named after filmmaker Orson Welles. There are several species in the genus Orsonwelles, including Orsonwelles othello, Orsonwelles macbeth, Orsonwelles falstaffius, Orsonwelles bellum, Orsonwelles toledus, and Orsonwelles ambersonorum. These names can be linked to roles he played or movies he made. You can thank biologist Gustavo Hormiga for naming these spiders.

4. Stephen Colbert

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Aptostichus stephencolberti was named for political satirist  Stephen Colbert after he pretty much demanded the honor upon hearing that Neil Young had a spider named after him. Colbert's is a California trapdoor spider first described by East Carolina University biologist Jason E. Bond, who was also responsible for naming Neil Young's spider.

5. Nelson Mandela

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Stasimopus mandelai is a trapdoor spider found in South Africa. The species was named in 2004 by zoologists Brent E. Hendrixson and Jason E. Bond in honor of the former South African president.

6. Harrison Ford

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The spider Calponia harrisonfordi was named for the star of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars in thanks after Ford narrated a documentary for the London Museum of Natural History in 1994. Arachnologist Norman I. Platnick discovered the spider in 1993. It is tiny, only around 5 millimeters in length, and lives in California.

7. Angelina Jolie

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Aptostichus angelinajoleae is another species named by Jason E. Bond, this time in collaboration with Amy Stockman. It is a California trapdoor spider that is closely related to Stephen Colbert's spider. In fact, there is some doubt about whether the two species are different.

8. Dizzy Dean

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Mastophora dizzydeani is a bolas spider. It makes a sticky ball on a short thread from its silk. The spider swings the ball at its insect prey to trap them. This particular species was discovered by William G. Eberhard and named for baseball player Dizzy Dean.

Since this spider's livelihood depends on throwing a ball fast and accurately, it seems appropriate to name it in honor of one of the greatest baseball pitchers of all time, Jerome "Dizzy" Dean.

Dean threw for the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s and '40s and is a Hall of Famer.

9. Frank Zappa

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The orb weaver spider Pachygnatha zappa was discovered by Robert Bosmans and Jan Bosselaers during expeditions to Mount Cameroon in 1981 and 1983. They presented the species in 1994. They noticed markings under the spider's abdomen that reminded them of musician Frank Zappa. His moustache in particular.

"Etymology. Zappa is a noun in apposition. This species epithet is given in honor of the twentieth century composer Frank Zappa (1941-1993), well known for both his serious and commercial music. The dark grey mark on the ventral side of the abdomen of the female of this species strikingly resembles the artist's legendary moustache (Fig. 69)"

Frank Zappa also had a jellyfish (Phialella zappai) and a fish genus (Zappa, a genus of Gobiidae) named in his honor, but the spider is the only one of the three that resembled him.

If you think a spider should be named after you, there are several scientific departments you can contact to try your luck.

See also: 10 Animals Named After Celebrities.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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