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5 Not-So-Famous Firsts, Doggy Style

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1. The First Leader Dogs

The first modern attempt at training dogs to help the visually impaired occurred just after World War I in Germany. Many soldiers were returning from the Front blinded from the effects of poison gas. That's when Dr. Gerhard Stalling got the idea to train German Shepherds to assist the country's visually impaired veterans. His successful results inspired the founding of a specialized training school for guide dogs  in Potsdam, where an average of 12 fully-trained dogs graduated each month and were then matched with blind people from all walks of life (not just military veterans). The concept spread stateside when Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American living in Switzerland, wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post. Upon hearing of the article, Morris Frank, a young blind man living in Tennessee, wrote to Mrs. Eustis and asked for help in obtaining a dog. Soon after, he traveled to Switzerland and trained with Buddy, a German Shepherd, who became the first American Guide Dog when the duo returned to the States.

2. The First Royal Corgi

Queen Elizabeth II owns the world's most pampered pack of Welsh corgis. Her Majesty personally scoops the royal dog chow into sterling silver dishes for her favorite pets and when recently shopping for a new car turned down a sporty Jaguar in favor of a Daimler Super Eight limousine so that her pups had room to stretch out. The four corgis currently residing at Buckingham Palace are all descendants of Susan, the dog that was given to then-Princess Elizabeth by her father, King George VI, in 1944 as an 18th birthday present. The Queen is also credited with introducing a new hybrid to dogdom, the dorgi, after one of her corgis had an illicit affair with Princess Margaret's dachshund, Pipkin. Her Majesty now has four dorgis in her inner circle of favored pets as well.

3. First Postage Pup

The first animal to be pictured on a postage stamp anywhere in the world was a Newfoundland. The half-cent stamp was issued in 1887 by the government of Newfoundland, which was not yet a province of Canada. The Newf also has the honor of being the first dog to be pictured on a postage stamp alongside a reigning monarch. The hardy, sturdy, hard-working Newfoundland was truly a service dog in its native land; during harsh winters, the dogs could pull carts loaded with Royal Mail over treacherous terrain inaccessible to horses or motor vehicles. In acknowledgement of their service, King George VI commissioned a postage stamp in 1937 on which he shared face space with the gentle giant.

4. First Top Dog

The Westminster Dog show is older than the American Kennel Club, the governing body that determines the standards for each breed today. (Actually, since the first Westminster show was held in 1877, it is also older than the electric light bulb, the Brooklyn Bridge and the ballpoint pen.) Since there was no established set of breed standards at the time, the first Westminster show was not limited to purebreds. And there were no "Champion Chin-Up White Tie for Dinner"-type names on the roster; most of the entrants had refreshingly simple names like Duke and Nellie. Westminster introduced the coveted Best in Show prize in 1907. The winner that year was a smooth fox terrier named Warren Remedy. The Blue Ribbon bitch (I mean that in the doggie sense) went on to win Best in Show in the next two Westminster shows, making her the only three-time winner in the history of the competition.

5. First Matinee Idol

Rin Tin Tin owes his career to Etzel von Oeringen, who, despite the impressive-sounding name, was not a human of royal lineage but a fellow German Shepherd. Etzel was born in Germany in 1917 and was the offspring of an undefeated champion work, police, and attack dog sire. Etzel earned many dog show championships in Europe before he was sold to an American kennel owner at the age of three. His impressive size and regal carriage caught the attention of Hollywood animal trainer/film director Larry Trimble, who hired the pooch after he demonstrated extraordinary agility (despite his size) as well as the ability to follow commands. Etzel was re-christened "Strongheart" and ultimately starred in five films during the 1920s. Strongheart became so popular that he was photographed dining on steak at New York's finest restaurants and also had a brand of dog food (still available today) named after him.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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