SUNDAY - "Great Migrations," the Latest Mega Nature Documentary

Premiering Sunday, November 7, on the National Geographic Channel: Great Migrations. Set your DVRs -- the seven-part series is set to air at 8pm.

We live in a wonderful era for nature documentaries. In recent years we've seen mega documentaries like Planet Earth and Life capture headlines, and with good reason -- they featured stunning HD photography, huge budgets, and a compelling narrative. The latest mega nature documentary is Great Migrations from National Geographic, and it's a doozy. This seven-part series is narrated by Alec Baldwin and features shockingly impressive photography, often tackling subjects that are really hard to photograph -- like tiny baby crabs, butterflies, ants, birds, as well as your standard large-mammal fare. Here's a sneak peek:

What Makes National Geographic Unique?

When I was a kid, the National Geographic magazine and television specials meant three things to me:

1. Awesome photography.

2. Great educational content.

3. A certain raw quality. (Remember sneaking peeks at the magazines that showed semi-nude ladies, from cultures where that was the norm?)

I'm happy to report that all of these qualities are preserved in Great Migrations. The only downside to #3 is that the documentary shows the brutal reality of nature: you see animals killing and eating each other. A shark rips a seal in half, filling the water with blood. Any time you see a lion or a crocodile, you can bet some young or weak animal is about to be eaten -- and you're going to see teeth sink into its neck as it goes down in slow motion. There's even a (comparatively tame) segment in which bald eagles rip apart frozen fish, just when you think they're going to attack a flock of other birds. My point is, this is an unflinching view of nature -- and it raises questions for parents who want to watch the program with young kids. You can either take this as an opportunity to discuss life and death with the kids, or watch the program on your own first, and then bring them in when you're sure they can handle it.

It really is a "circle of life" issue. In order for predator species to survive, they have to eat prey. This documentary is about migrating animals, which serve as prey for predators. That's not news. What is interesting is that the presentation is pretty stark, and this presents parents an opportunity to sit down with the kids and talk about life and death. I was honestly surprised by the amount of violence shown onscreen -- it's not gratuitous, but it's real. That is what makes this a National Geographic documentary, though -- they don't tone it down to make nature cuddly and safe. They show you when a member of the herd doesn't make it, and then they show you the rest of the herd as it struggles for survival.

The Donaghy Probletunity

Alec Baldwin narrates Great Migrations, and he does it well. (When Oprah Winfrey narrated the US version of Life there were howls of protest and many viewers refused to watch until the UK version with Attenborough's narration was released on Blu-ray; I don't think anyone can complain about Baldwin's exquisite narration -- it feels right, it sounds right, and it gives the documentary an extra flavor.) But what kept creeping into my brain was Baldwin's character Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock. My mind kept flipping between listening to Alec Baldwin narrating the documentary...then Jack Donaghy narrating the documentary. After all, Donaghy is a TV executive on 30 Rock whose main feature is excessive gravitas, as expressed through his trademark Baldwin Voice.

Personally, I found this delightful. Your kids aren't going to get it, and if you haven't seen 30 Rock you're not going to get it either. But if you're a 30 Rock fan, you will experience this cognitive flip, and I found it hilarious to listen to Jack Donaghy narrating the migration of wildebeests, elephants, and so on. In this unexpected way, you get two documentaries in one -- the serious version and the wink-wink-nudge-nudge version that Jack Donaghy provides. It's up to you to decide which one you're watching.

And because I couldn't resist, here's a clip showing part of the monarch butterfly narration, as narrated by Jack Donaghy, Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric. (He makes sure to mention how the butterflies save energy...perhaps a hidden sales pitch for GE microwaves.)

How Did They Do That?

Watching Great Migrations, it's hard not to pause, wondering how in the world they managed to get certain shots. They film the migration of monarch butterflies (also covered by this NOVA special), and you many photographers had to sit there next to a milkweed plant in order to get those shots? (This is actually explained in a Behind the Scenes episode as well as at this behind-the-scenes site.)

Time-lapse and slow motion are used to great effect, causing a lot of "wow" moments (I actually used saucier language, but you get the point). Some of the most memorable shots are underwater, with the two standouts being a brief segment on bioluminescent plankton, and an extended segment about red crabs (which are land creatures, but spawn in the sea).

Here's a clip from the red crab sequence, which they battle, I kid you not, "yellow crazy ants":

And here's some of that underwater footage I was talking about, followed by adorable baby crabs swarming over land. This is a tiny web video -- imagine this in full HD on your awesome TV.

This is a rare documentary in which the sheer beauty of insects and crustaceans, and the power of National Geographic's photography, makes them more relatable than mammals.

Senior producer David Hamlin, who shot the red crab sequence, explained it like so:

The aerial footage of some of these migrations is spectacular, but there is some stunning underwater photography of red crabs releasing their eggs, and then those eggs hatching. Can you talk a bit about what that shoot was like?

We filmed the red crabs on Christmas Island (between Australia and Indonesia). Once a year, when the monsoons arrive, nearly 50 million crabs march across the forest to the ocean. It's an incredible migration - one of my personal favorites. Frankly, this was the one migration I couldn't' miss - I just had to see it for myself. The year we filmed the crabs, the rains that triggered the annual migration were not as plentiful as in past years, so the crabs suffered during their walk. Open ground is death to them because the sun and heat dry up their lungs and they die. For red crabs, every drop of rain is quite literally a breath of fresh air. Another challenge in their race to the water's edge is what's known as yellow crazy ants. These invasive ants spray acid into the crabs' eyes rendering them blind, so that the crab can't move and dies in the sun.

The males arrive at the beach first and dig holes for the females, and a week later the females join them and burrow into those holes to grow their brood of up to 100,000 eggs. Then, something miraculous happens. Even though the female crabs are buried underground, they somehow know which night the moon is the smallest, and the tide therefore lowest, and they emerge from the earth, head down to the shoreline and into the water to release their eggs. The water is usually blue but it turns black with the amount of eggs.

Normally, when this migration happens, the eggs get dispersed all over the place and more often than not, they get eaten by fish and scattered by storms. It is only on every few years that the circumstances are favorable and the eggs make it back to the shoreline.

We were profoundly lucky - and prepared. We were able to see them hatching, and watch them emerge as tiny shrimp-like creature called megalops. But the real miracle is when millions of these tiny crablings emerge from the sea and overrun the beaches as they begin their own lifetime migrating back and forth, from the sea to the forest. It's breathtaking.

He's not overstating it (and you can see behind the scenes footage about this particular segment here). The red crab segment is stunning, breathtaking, you name it -- the sheer redness of the crabs on land to the bizarre and brilliantly colorful underwater footage are typical of Great Migrations. This is a documentary that will make you want to buy a bigger TV.

The Coffee Table Book

There's also a companion book featuring still photographs from the series, with a striking zebra photo on the cover. (Did you know that zebra stripe patterns are unique to each zebra? That's a little something I learned from watching Great Migrations.) The book stands on its own, and I've had it on my coffee table for a few weeks. Flipping through it, you're reminded again of what makes National Geographic so great: photography. The book is in stores now.

Set Your DVRs

Great Migrations premieres this Sunday, November 7, at 8pm. Check out the episode guide for details on the entire seven-part series. (Click the "episodes" button for specific air dates and times.) If you don't get the National Geographic Channel, the series will be out on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16.

Blogger disclosure: I was provided with rough cut DVD copies of the documentary for review, as well as a copy of the companion book for review. No compensation, monetary or otherwise, was provided for this article.

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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]