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Niche Blogs: Awesome Animals Edition

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In the continuing series on highly-specific blogs, there are many that deal with animals. Cute Overload and I Can Has Cheezburger? are the "big dogs," so to speak, but the public's appetite for cute and/or funny animal pictures, stories, and information is so great that more focused animals subjects have their place.

Animal Reviews gives a thorough overview of a different species in each post, and grades them from A to F. For example, killer bees get an F while the leafy sea dragon (pictured) gets an A. Sometimes animals will get a second grade for their suitability as a pet. On the other hand, F You, Penguin, which contains a profanity in the blog title as well as most of the posts, is purely for entertainment. Each animal gets an overdose of criticism, snark, and utter contempt. But if all you need is a pick-me-up, try Cute Things Falling Asleep, a video blog that contains the occasional cute human as well as animals.

There is a subgenre of blogs featuring animals in certain situations. Many shelters and animal rights groups have blogs about pets for adoption and animal news. Animals in Disasters is a publication of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, in which you'll find news of how animals are faring during recent disasters like the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti, the severe winter weather in Mongolia, and flooding in Vietnam. The photo blog Animalswithcasts takes a sad situation and makes it cute, since it is obvious that someone is caring for each critter.

While bunny rabbits are soft and usually gentle, they often appear to be looking down their noses at us. Disapproving Rabbits highlights this feature by posting rabbit pictures. You can get more rabbits at The Daily Bunny, which delivers what it promises: a photograph of a bunny rabbit every day. Bunnylicious, on the other hand, is an art blog about only one kind of art -that which contains bunnies.

Pets are adorable, but if you want to get your daily dose of cute in the wild, check out The Daily Otter which features videos as well as pictures.

Writer and photographer Shreve Stockton took in a baby coyote when its parents were shot for killing sheep in Wyoming. She is documenting Charlie's life with her in the blog The Daily Coyote. Charlie is now three years old, but his baby pictures still inspire many "awws".

This Goat's Life is a diary of life on the farm, as seen by a dairy goat named Silver Belle. As she relates the doings of the farm family and various kinds of livestock, Silver Belle is often subtly snarky.

Moldy will be getting a little extra in her pay packet this week. She had two doelings at 3 o'clock. That's good, now she has someone to listen to all her complaints.

She is already telling them about the great utopia of Oregon where she used to live. The beautiful land of milk and honey, where candy grows on trees, and little white goats ride on satin cushions.

Of course, not all animals are cute and cuddly. Rattitude is about rats and what great pets they make. Oh, you think rats ARE cute and cuddly? The how about snakes? SLOG (Singapore Snakes Blog) documents snake sightings in Singapore, of which there are plenty, but you are invited to submit your own. And don't forget spiders. The Spider Blog features a "spider of the week" and gives detailed information on each species.

There are always more cat blogs to explore. Despite what the name looks like at first glance, F@ K@ Blog is "a daily appreciation of the Curvy Cat" and features found photos of fat cats. Stray Cats in Tokyo (English translation) is the work of photographer t-nekogatari, who makes strays look as if they are posing for portraits. Average Cats was created as a rebellion against LOLcats. It has captioned photographs of cats, but they don't say anything particularly funny or clever, as you can see in the above picture. They are just average cats.

You'll find more specialized blogs dealing with animals in the previous posts A Sampling of Niche Blogs and Cat Blogging and Blogging Cats.

See also:  Niche Blogs: Found Photos Edition and Niche Blogs: Focused on Food.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]