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How to Train Your Goldfish

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Col. Konrad Most, one of the pioneers of modern animal training, began training service dogs while serving in the Royal Prussian Police in 1906. His book on the subject, Training Dogs, described many of the basic elements of operant conditioning—including reinforcement, extinction, and shaping—that American behaviorist B.F. Skinner would later popularize. If Most were alive today, he’d probably get a kick out of the Canis Film Festival, which features videos of owners using operant conditioning to train their pups, and appreciate that the same principles he used to train his dogs are now applied to many other species, including chickens, llamas, and even fish.

The Commercialization of Animal Training

In 1943, Marian and Keller Breland, who had worked under Skinner, founded Animal Behavior Enterprises in Minnesota.

(As one of the commenters on Matt Soniak’s recent article about the CIA’s plan to use cats as spies said, an entire article could be devoted to Marian Breland’s life.)

At ABE, the Brelands trained all sorts of species for television and movie roles, circuses, theme parks, and zoos. The couple helped establish positive reinforcement, rather than punishment, as the preferred technique to train animals. ABE-trained chickens were advertising farm feeds by 1947, and the Brelands authored an instruction manual about behavioral analysis for other trainers. Keller Breland died in 1965, the same year that Bob Bailey, who was the first Director of Training in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, joined ABE. Marian married Bob and became Marian Breland Bailey in 1976. Twenty years later, the couple founded Bailey & Bailey Operant Conditioning Workshops.

Here are a few examples of animals that are trained using operant conditioning today.

Chickens

In 1975, Terry and Bill Ryan founded Legacy Canine Behavior & Training. During the 1980s, the couple began hosting canine training camps in their home state of Washington. Turnout was strong from the start, but the Ryans wanted to broaden the reach of their training. In an effort to make the camps more accessible to owners who were unable to travel with their dogs, they started teaching the basics of operant conditioning, including the importance of rewarding a behavior at the correct time, by using rats in Skinner boxes.

In the early 1990s, Terry Ryan teamed with Kang Shallenberger, a retired dolphin trainer of 25 years at Hawaii’s Sea Life Park, and began using chickens as training models. “With a dog, you want to take short cuts and skip steps,” Shallenberger told the Lewiston Morning Tribune in 1993. “But as soon as you skip a step with a chicken, you’re lost.” Chicken training, which the Brelands had demonstrated nearly 50 years earlier, became an increasingly popular way for dog owners to hone their training technique.

Today, chicken training camps and workshops are held throughout the world. The aforementioned Bob Bailey, who has appeared as a guest at Legacy camps in the past, hosted chicken training seminars until his retirement in 2008. Using simple clicker training, chickens can be taught to play Tic-Tac-Toe and navigate obstacle courses.

Fish
For $29.99, the R2 Fish School will give you the tools to teach your fish to “shoot hoops, limbo dance, play fetch, kick a goal, and much more.” The training kit uses positive reinforcement to combat the notion that fish only have 3-second memories. According to the site, “fish have shown the ability to swim through mazes, identify different colors, recognize types of music and even tell time.” The most famous graduate of the R2 Fish School is Albert Einstein, a goldfish, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for the fish with the most tricks. Fish that successfully complete the training course receive a diploma.


Cats
Among the many training-related products sold on the Karen Pryor Clicker Training website is a cat training kit that will help you teach your cat to come when called, play without scratching, and perform cute tricks. Are you sold? Clicker training, which Pryor popularized during her many years as a dolphin trainer, can also be used to toilet train your cat. Pryor launched the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior in 2007.

Alpacas and Llamas
According to her website, Cathy Spalding has been “actively involved with llamas and alpacas” since 1985. During that time, she has organized a Llama and Alpaca Symposium in Kansas City and authored a behavioral textbook, Llama Talk, which details llama behavioral cues. The resource is used by a number of schools, including the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell. Spalding teaches behavior and training clinics and offers private sessions. If you’ve ever wanted to train your pet llama to jump through a hoop or ring a bell, this is the blog for you.

Pigs

Priscilla Valentine claims her Potbellied Pig Behavior and Training Manual is the first and only book completely devoted to the behavior and training of pigs, and we’re inclined to believe her. Valentine’s pigs have performed at state fairs and other events throughout the country, and garnered numerous awards, including the Potbellied Pig Trick Champion title. Priscilla, who trains her pigs with her husband Steve, says she became fascinated with the animals after she was given a rubber pig as a toy when she was 3.

The Valentines’ most famous pig, Nellie, became a national sensation in 1991 after starring in “Jurassic Pork,” which won the couple $10,000 on America’s Funniest Home Videos. The Valentines’ training manual features tips for addressing problematic behaviors such as rooting and nipping, and includes a 10-step program for reducing aggressiveness in house pigs.

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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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