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Ten Tentacled Characters

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No matter how well modern filmmakers can create characters with no human attributes, we still find it easier to communicate with and relate to humanoid forms. What's the simplest way to take a humanoid fictional character and make it different, frightening, and maybe even disgusting? Put some tentacles on it! On the surface, tentacles evoke a mental image of the octopus, a strange and mysterious creature of the deep we never encounter in everyday life. Its tentacles are far-reaching, flexible, and numerous -attributes that can each be threatening. On a deeper psychological plane, tentacles remind us of snakes and the near-universal fear they inspire. Extending on that association, Freud would say the snake is a metaphor for the penis. That said, this post will not include tentacle porn -you can look that up yourself if you choose. Instead, let's look at some pop culture characters presented as different, frightening, or disgusting through the appearance of tentacles.

1. Monster from Outer Space

In the 1958 film I Married a Monster from Outer Space, a new nightmare for brides was introduced as Marge Bradley gradually realized that the body of her husband Bill has been co-opted by a tentacled alien from a race of males who have invaded earth seeking to mate with human women. This apparently happened a long time ago, meaning she has been sleeping with a monster.

2. Squidward Tentacles

Squidward is a friend and co-worker of the cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants. Designed to be the antithesis of Spongebob's optimistic and bubbly personality, Squidward is cynical and slightly unpleasant, but isn't particularly threatening, possibly because he has only six tentacles. Or possibly because he is a cartoon character.

3. Purple Tentacle

Here's a character that doesn't have tentacles -he IS a tentacle! Purple Tentacle is the villain in the video game Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle. He was created in the first Maniac Mansion game, along with his cohort Green Tentacle. Purple, however, sprouts arms and becomes evil in the sequel in which he stars. Purple Tentacle also appears in the game Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

4. Ursula

The tentacled villainess in the 1989 Disney movie The Little Mermaid is named Ursula. She has no redeeming values whatsoever, and therefore is depicted as the scariest of undersea creatures (at least for little girls) -an octopus.

5. Davy Jones

The pirate Davy Jones is depicted in the second and third movies of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Dead Man's Chest and At World's End as a tentacled sea monster. His disgusting appearance reinforced his standing as the villain of the second movie, but created a bit of cognitive dissonance when he emerged as an ally to the principle pirates in the third movie.

6. District 9 Aliens

The aliens from Neill Blomkamp's 2009 movie District 9 are derogatorily called "prawns". The species is designed to be hideous to human eyes, with the appearance of tentacle-like appendages growing from their faces, to highlight the "otherness" of an immigrant population of sentient beings.

7. Dr. Zoidberg

Dr. John Zoidberg is the incompetent medical doctor on the TV series Futurama. Although he is listed as a crustacean instead of a cephalopod, the appendages on his face are clearly seen as tentacles. He also squirts ink, a truly octopus habit.

8. Doctor Octopus

Otto Octavius is a nuclear physicist in the Marvel Comics universe. He invented a set of mechanical arms resembling tentacles which became fused with his body during a nuclear accident. However, the supervillain known as Doctor Octopus could control the arms with his mind, even after they were surgically removed. The doctor is Spider-Man's frequent nemesis, and has battled other superheroes in his time.

9. Kraken

The Kraken is a legendary sea monster which is undoubtedly an octopus or squid pumped up to gigantic dimensions. It disguised itself as a mile-wide island and attacked when sailors from passing ships lit fires upon it. These stories go back hundreds of years, and are possibly based on sightings of a giant squid. The Kraken appeared in the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans (and the 2010 remake) and in the 2006 TV movie Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep. The Kraken had its most widely-seen moment in the 2006 movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, when it devours Captain Jack Sparrow and his entire ship.

10. Cthulhu

The most popular tentacled fictional character on the internet by far is Cthulhu, from the story "The Call of Cthulhu" by H. P. Lovecraft. The ancient god rises from the sea occasionally to haunt mankind. The sheer horror of this character has inspired fan clubs, blogs, art, games, a political campaign, and other projects created to bring him down to a psychologically manageable level.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Maybe you can contribute other tentacled characters in the comments.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]