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Giant Panda Facts!

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Ming Ming, the world's oldest panda in captivity, passed away on May 7, 2011, at China's Panyu Xiangjiang Wild Animal World. In the wild, giant pandas generally live to be about 15 years old, but Ming Ming was 34 when, despite the best efforts of Guangzhou University veterinarians to stem the effects old age was having on her various organs in recent months, she succumbed to kidney failure. We hope you're able to enjoy a few fun panda facts despite the sad occasion.

Cute Overload!

Why are we so fascinated with giant pandas versus, say, alligators (which are also a threatened species)? The sad truth, as any human who has worn thick eyeglasses since third grade knows, is that one is cute and the other is not so much. Researchers have long studied the science of cuteness and have determined that there are certain "cute cues" that automatically trigger an "awww" response in humans. Large, bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a roly-poly body, and a teeter-totter gait are just a few of the traditional traits that provoke the urge to hug and cuddle. The panda seems to have been custom-built from the cute cue checklist: those black circles around the eyes (which scientists believe evolved to make them look more ferocious to predators) give them the waif-like look of a Keane painting, and the large facial muscles necessary to constantly chew bamboo 16 hours per day provide them with adorably chubby cheeks just begging to be pinched.

Open, Sesamoid

A sesamoid is a bone embedded within a tendon (think of the human kneecap); thanks to evolution, the giant panda has a radial sesamoid that operates much like an opposable thumb. This extra digit is a small bone that started out as a standard part of the animal's wrist. Over time, this bone enlarged and elongated and also eventually developed a different type of musculature – one that enabled this "thumb" to be pulled toward the panda's other "fingers." Centuries of evolution have also provided the panda with a shallow furrow in the paw pads between the "thumb" and "fingers," making it easier to hold bamboo stalks while stripping the leaves off for munching.

Why Don't They Just Get Busy?

Giant pandas have been endangered for years, and their numbers aren't dwindling strictly because their natural habitat is being encroached upon... it's just that the male panda is sort of the animal equivalent of Al Bundy. He spends upwards of 12 hours a day just sitting and eating, and apparently bamboo isn't nature's Viagra. Bamboo has very little nutritional value, so the panda needs to consume about 40 lbs. of the stuff each day to survive. In the wild, pandas have always been solitary animals precisely because each animal requires a huge tract of bamboo for its daily "bread." Wild pandas can sometimes go for years without encountering another one of their kind. Females only go into estrus once per year, and their fertile period lasts a maximum of three days. If there are no males nearby during this very narrow window of time, the female panda will remain cub-less for the year.

Truth be told, had humans not intervened, it is quite possible that the giant panda would have become extinct some time ago simply via natural selection. Even in captivity pandas aren't burning up the bedsheets; that roly-poly physique that makes them so cute is the result of a lifetime of very little physical activity. Many males just find it too exhausting to answer the mating call. Different panda reserves around the world have utilized various techniques to encourage breeding over the years, including exercising the males to strengthen their hind legs and even showing them "panda porn" – videos of other bears doing the nasty. Thus far the last resort – artificial insemination – has been the most successful method of perpetuating the species. (Shown above are day-old panda cubs)

Talk About Tough Love...

Because bamboo is so low in nutrients, mama pandas are only able to produce enough milk to feed one cub at a time sufficiently. In the wild, if a female gives birth to twins, she must perforce choose one cub to feed and nurture while abandoning the other to perish. Zoologists have determined that dog's milk is very similar to panda milk, so in many panda preserves around the world lactating female dogs are recruited as wet nurses for these shunned twins. Tiny pink panda cubs are placed among mama dog's blind squirming pups and, if luck is on their side, the panda will find a teat on which to latch. The orphaned babies are kept in incubators between feedings, and trained attendants use gloved hands (in the absence of mama bear's tongue) to massage to cubs' bellies to encourage elimination.

Ah-Choo!

According to a 2009 survey, the Sneezing Baby Panda was the third most popular YouTube video on the Internet. That famous nasal moment was captured by the Australian film production company Wild Candy that was filming a documentary called Little Pandas – The New Breed at the Wolong Panda Breeding Centre in China's Sichuan province. Tragically, the mama bear who was contentedly snacking in the video, Mao Mao, was crushed to death when the walls of her enclosure collapsed during the 2008 earthquake. Mao Mao was given an atypical (for an animal in China) ceremonial burial, with attendees observing three minutes of silence while her weeping long-time keeper arranged two apples and a piece of bread on her grave.

Tricky Dicky

When it comes to former president Richard Nixon, current history textbooks tend to focus on that whole Watergate and resignation fiasco. Whatever black marks he accrued during his presidency, one thing that can't be disputed is the olive branch he extended to the People's Republic of China back in 1972. At that time, the land commonly known as "Red China" was a mystery to most Americans, and it was a major domestic coup when President Nixon met with Chairman Mao Zedong. The two countries had been staunch enemies for many years and the Cold War was still in effect, but Nixon's statement that "We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations" so touched Chairman Mao that he gifted the U.S. with two giant pandas, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, the first two of the species to grace American soil. The bears were transported with great ceremony from Dulles Airport to their new home at the National Zoo on April 16, 1972. Once the pandas were acclimated, as many as 20,000 visitors lined up each day to peek at the cuddly pair. Over the years, the media kept close tabs on the pandas, including their unsuccessful breeding attempts, and the nation mourned when first Ling-Ling died of heart failure in 1992 and then Hsing-Hsing succumbed to kidney failure in 1999.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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
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science
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]

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