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Two More Odd Things I Just Learned About Fish

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When I'm not blogging for mental_floss, I can usually be found wearing bright orange rubber pants and gutting, cutting and selling fish at my local Whole Foods (and winning awards for it). Sometimes, my two worlds collide and I find some scientific research involving my ocean-dwelling friends that begs for a blog post. This is one of those times.

1. Catfish are seriously terrifying

The order Siluriformes (we know its members as catfish) is diverse group. It contains 34 recognized families, which contain over 400 genera, which contain some 3,000+ known species. Some of these catfish have long been known to be venomous, but the number of venomous species and their distribution on the evolutionary tree have only recently been examined and documented.

Jeremy Wright, from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, recently published the results of a histological and toxicological investigation into venomous catfish.[1] He cataloged 158 venomous species and looked into the biological effects of their venom (the venoms have neurotoxic and hemolytic[2] properties and can produce "severe pain, ischemia, muscle spasms and respiratory distress" (though a single species' venom may not produce all of these effects). Wright's results allowed him to estimate the total number of venomous species and he writes that his results indicate that approximately 1250-1625+ catfish species should be presumed venomous. If his numbers are accurate, venomous catfish may outnumber the combined total of all other venomous vertebrate species.

I, for one, welcome our poisonous catfish overlords and am immediately switching to oyster po' boys.

2. Pipefish will break a few eggs to make an omelet

pipefishMale pipefish, like their seashorse cousins, take on a lot of child care responsibility. After conceiving, females hand over a hundred or so fertilized eggs to the males, who carry and nourish them until they hatch. For a while, it was great fodder for "best animal dads" stories around Father's Day time, but then some researchers studying broad-nosed pipefish noticed that a few eggs (or sometimes the whole batch) tend to "reduce" or disappear after the father is left to babysit.[3]


Researchers radioactively labeled a batch of eggs prior to their transfer to a male so they could trace nutrient uptake from these eggs and found that the labeled amino acids wound up in the father's brood pouch, liver and muscle tissues. The research suggests that the blood vessels in the fathers' brood pouches allow them siphon away nutrients from their eggs. This seems to be done for the father's own use, and not for the redistribution of nutrients among the other eggs since the labeled amino acids weren't observed in the rest of the eggs!

1Jeremy J Wright. "Diversity, phylogenetic distribution, and origins of venomous catfishes." BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:282. doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-282.

2Hemolytic venoms have the particularly gruesome effect of breaking down the flesh. The blood vessels exposed to the venom lose their ability to contain the blood, the clotting effect is suppressed, and the flesh in the area fills with fluid and dies.

3Gry Sagebakken, Ingrid Ahnesjö, Kenyon B. Mobley, Inês Braga Gonçalves, Charlotta Kvarnemo. "Brooding fathers, not siblings, take up nutrients from embryos." Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Published online before print November 25, 2009. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1767

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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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