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Taxidermy Gone Wild

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Art takes many forms and uses a variety of media. A skilled artist can make a thing of beauty out of any available material, including dead animals. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many beginners think they are a skilled artists. That's why we have a range of "art" that includes not only masterful results, but also bizarre artifacts from our nightmares and other objects we just can't figure out at all. Among taxidermy projects on the internet, you'll find all three.

Sam Sanfiliipo owns a funeral home in Madison, Wisconsin. As a distraction for mourners (and a gallery for his work), he set up a collection of dioramas in the basement of the funeral home featuring stuffed squirrels engaging in various activities, such as the rodeo here. See more pictures in a Flickr set. Image by Flickr user Garth Johnson.

Artist and animal activist Angela Singer uses existing stuffed animals as a platform for artworks that make a statement. The juxtaposition of a dead animal with the addition of flowers, jewels, and other doodads only highlights the violence of the animal's demise. See more examples at her website and Facebook page.

New Zealand sculptor Lisa Black modifies existing mounted animals as well, with the addition of steampunk accessories. These she calls "fixed" animals, as if they were broken and then mended with mechanical prostheses. Pictured is her Fixed Fawn, a part of the fixed mammal series.

Walter Potter created bizarre but artful dioramas of everyday life illustrated with dead animals throughout the latter half of the 19th century. The Kitten Wedding, shown here, is one of his last and most popular works. His extensive collection was auctioned off to various buyers in 2003.

Ulrika Good, who brought the Lion of Gripsholm Castle to our attention, points out a Facebook group called Dårligt udstoppede dyr, dedicated to badly stuffed animals. This impossibly leaping deer is part of the collection.

Crappy Taxidermy collects submitted pictures of taxidermy gone wrong -or in this case, intentionally bizarre. This "bird-legged swamp cat" was spotted for sale at eBay.

Terrible Taxidermy features photographs Chris Ham took at the Church of the Virgen de Aqua on a trip Banos, Ecuador in which he was particularly struck by poor rendering of wildlife.

At the web magazine Fish With JD, a section is reserved for photos of "taxidermy gone bad." My favorite is a sturgeon head watching over diners in a restaurant. Note the inaccessible electrical outlet in the ceiling.

Last year, Brewdog specialty beer outlet offered a limited edition of 12 beer bottles covered with stuffed animals. The End of History was a super strong beer bottled inside seven stoats, four squirrels, and one hare. The bottles sold for £500 each. Brewdog founder James Watt said,

"I can think of no grander way to celebrate these animals than for them to be cherished by the lucky owners.

"The animals used to bottle The End Of History all died of natural causes - better to be celebrated and valued than left to rot."

Mad Taxidermy is a fairly new personal Tumblr blog in which most of the posts are illustrated with a humorous picture of bizarre taxidermy that has little or nothing to do with the post content. An example is this fantastic patched-together creature that was sold years ago on eBay, but became a classic illustration of strange taxidermy.

A Livejournal community called WTF Taxidermy has links, discussions, and photographs of strange taxidermy going back years. This oddly-posed wildcat was spotted on eBay.

There is a peculiar art form in the field of novel taxidermy called assquatch, or  "deer butt aliens" if you want to be more genteel. The example you see here is from the private collection of Don Burleson, who will explain to you how they are made, although even reading about the process is not recommended for sensitive souls.

These sites barely scratch the surface of strange taxidermy, but they can keep you busy for quite some time if you have the interest (and the stomach) for it.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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