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How Do You Transport a Whale?

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The orca that tragically killed Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld Orlando last month was previously kept at a now-defunct aquarium in British Columbia. How does something so large—"Tilly" weighs close to 12,000 pounds—get from Point A to Point B?

First, you have to decide who is going to be doing the moving. Aquariums and zoos will sometimes take care of their own animal transport needs. Other times, they might charter the equipment from a private company or the government, or just hand the whole job over to someone else. The people in charge of logistics then need to decide whether the move will use wet or dry transit.

In wet transit, which can be used for either fish or marine mammals, the animal is kept in a (huge) tank of water. In dry transit, which is used for marine mammals only, the animal is secured in a padded sling and kept calm, wet and cool by human companions. For marine mammals, the wet or dry decision is usually made based on travel distance and the size of the animal.

In 1998, SeaWorld San Diego released J.J., a young female gray whale they had found beached a year earlier and nursed back to health, back into the wild. While under SeaWorld's care, J.J. had grown to 31 feet and 19,200 pounds. She would become the largest mammal ever transported. SeaWorld opted for dry transit—J.J.'s size, the size of the tank she would have required, and the combined weight of whale, tank and water (a gallon weighs a little over 8 lbs.) would have been too much to handle. J.J. was instead fitted into a custom-made transport sling, lifted from her SeaWorld tank by crane, and placed on a 40-foot foam-padded trailer. A truck pulled the trailer to a harbor, where she was loaded by crane onto the USCGC Conifer, transported to an area off Point Loma—San Diego's westernmost point—and released. You can see photos of J.J.'s journey back to the ocean here.

Special Delivery

GA-transportDry transit isn't very kind to fish, so moving them always requires tanks, plenty of water and a whole lot more planning. In 2006, the Georgia Aquarium acquired a pair of female whale sharks named Alice and Trixie from Taiwan. UPS, which is based in Atlanta and often provides free services to hometown institutions, was given the job of transporting the two 13-foot, 2,200 pound sharks 8,000 miles from Taiwan to Atlanta.

Specially designed trailers and a police escort got the sharks to the airport, where they were loaded on a UPS B-747 jet for the 60-hour flight to Atlanta (with a brief layover in Anchorage, Alaska). The plane's interior had been reconfigured to fit an onboard lab, where Aquarium veterinarians could monitor the sharks, and two custom-made, foam-lined tanks in which the sharks were secured with reinforced canvas slings. The environmental conditions on the plane were also adjusted to ensure the sharks' comfort. The plane's temperature, usually kept at 69 degrees, was boosted to 75 degrees to reflect the fish's habitat. The pilots, meanwhile, were instructed to make long, shallow takeoffs and landings and slow, gradual mid-air turns to avoid stressing their special passengers.

The move went off without a hitch and took only six weeks to plan. UPS had had a little practice, though, since they had transported roughly 50 tanks of fish and mammals to the Georgia Aquarium the previous year.

For more on whale moving, check out this video from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, which explains how they moved seven beluga whales and four Pacific white-sided dolphins to a temporary home at another aquarium:

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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]