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Some Things You Should Know About Polar Bears

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Devotees of online "cuteness overload" sites are probably familiar with Knut, the polar bear born in 2006 at the Berlin Zoological Garden. Little Knut was rejected by his mother and was subsequently hand-raised by zookeeper Thomas Dörflein, who slept on a mattress next to Knut's crate at night in order to provide 24-hour care. Both Knut and his caretaker became reluctant celebrities and regularly greeted visitors at the zoo at set times each day.

As fluffy and adorable as baby Knut was, he was destined to grow up into a full-fledged adult polar bear, considered by biologists to be the most dangerous species of the bear kingdom. Adult Knut was just recently introduced to a three-year-old female on loan from the Munich Zoo. The humans involved hope that the pair will eventually have amour on their minds, and they're encouraged by Gianna's initial reaction: she smacked Knut on his snoot, a not uncommon practice among female polar bears and potential suitors. Just in case you're unfamiliar with polar bear behavior in general, here are a few quick facts:

Polar bears know no boundaries when it comes to hunting for food. They travel from Alaska to Russia to Canada to Greenland, and even parts of Norway. They're not really land animals, but they travel from place to place across the ice when the ocean freezes. Seal meat is the favorite food of polar bears, and they prefer to stay out at sea on giant ice floes where seals are plentiful. "Still hunting" is a polar bear's preferred method of catching its favorite dinner, a ringed or bearded seal. The bear finds an air hole in the ice, lies next to it, and keeps very still. When a seal pops his head up for a breath of air, the bear grabs it and flips it onto the ice.
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Polar bears possess one of the most sensitive noses in the animal kingdom. Researchers believe that polar bears can smell a seal from up to 20 miles away, or even a seal den that's been buried under three feet of snow. When they stand on their hind legs, they're usually sniffing the air around them, trying to hone in on the closest food source.
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Underneath its fur, a polar bear's skin is just as black as its nose. Scientists used to believe that the black skin of the polar bear helped it to absorb heat, but recent studies have shown that its fur actually absorbs most of the UV rays and transmits very little energy to the flesh. Polar bears actually have two layers of fur, which insulates the creatures so well that they tend to get overheated when running a long distance.
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Their fur is oily and water repellent. When polar bears climb out of the water after a swim, one or two good shakes dries them off almost completely.
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The wild polar bear population has diminished in recent years due to global warming and their overall loss of habitat, so breeding in captivity has been encouraged in order to perpetuate the species. As a result, scientists have learned a great deal about the mating patterns of polar bears. They've noted, for example, that polar bears don't seem to mind "courting" in full view of visitors, but mama bears won't carry a cub to term unless she has her own private, secluded den. Adult female polar bears usually give birth once every three years, and the cubs stay with their mothers until they are about two and a half years old. The mother bear nurses them for up to 30 months, even though the youngsters start sprouting very sharp teeth at only two months of age. The cubs look bald at birth, but they actually have a very fine layer of fur. They are, however, unable to see or hear when they're first born.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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