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5 More Animals That Romped Through New York

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An escaped peacock from New York’s Central Park Zoo found perching on Fifth Avenue window ledges drew attention—and international headlines—from news crews, bird watchers and well wishers last week.

The now-famous cerulean fowl, which eventually returned to the zoo on its own, got us thinking about a handful of other animals that have taken unexpected trips through the Big Apple’s urban wilderness over the years.

Photo credit: ANIMALNewYork

1. Wile E. Coyote’s Lesser-Known Second Cousin, Hal

In 2006, Manhattanites all but reenacted an episode of a Road Runner vs. Coyote cartoon, chasing a one-year-old coyote named Hal around Central Park’s famous ice rink, over the carousel, and through the woods on a two-day urban safari. Hal was eventually shot by a tranquilizer dart and captured, but not before New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was called upon to quell New Yorkers’ fears about the wayward wild dog. “This is New York,” he said at a press conference at the time. “I would suggest that the coyote may have more problems than the rest of us.”

2. Pale Male the Red-Tailed Hawk

Twenty years ago, a red-tailed hawk named Pale Male took up residency on a fancy Fifth Avenue apartment building, drawing the attention of thousands of curious New Yorkers toting telescopes. Denizens of the posh apartment, including Mary Tyler Moore, were less than thrilled about having birdwatchers’ binoculars outside their bedroom windows and decided to remove Pale Male’s nest under cover of night. Little did they know they would be sparking an international incident.

The Audubon Society, bird advocacy groups, and active-duty soldiers in Iraq all came together to demand that the nest be returned. It was, and Pale Male, along with his female mate, returned to their improbable home, where they live today. The famous hawk has since inspired an award-winning documentary—The Legend of Pale Male—three children’s books, and a recurring character on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.

3 and 4. Maxine and Queenie: Renegade Bovines

Thelma and Louise? So last century. Maxine and Queenie is more like it. Both are cows that have gone on the lam in Queens and Brooklyn, narrowly escaping the fate of their cow-cohorts at a nearby slaughterhouse.

Both Maxine and Queenie were found stampeding through urban streets, tranquilized, and delivered to a farm animal sanctuary in upstate New York, where they joined dozens of other cows, sheep and goats, most of whom also made a break from the herd at the slaughterhouse. Animal control officials in New York say they usually get calls about two or three escaped farm animals per year, but more often they get calls about chickens who’ve snuck out the back door during Jewish Kapparot ceremonies—a ritual in which a chicken is sacrificed before Yom Kippur—or been dyed pastel colors during Easter. Mr. Pickles, a rooster rescued from the hard-knock streets of Brooklyn, now lives with Maxine and Queenie in upstate New York.

5. A Snake on the Loose

Just a few months ago, New Yorkers flew into a tizzy when a banded cobra escaped from its cage in the Bronx Zoo. A fake Twitter account sprang up, cracking every snake-related joke you can think of (when will the 2006 cinematic masterpiece Snakes on a Plane stop being hilarious?). The two-foot-long teenage cobra was discovered two days after its alleged jailbreak, curled in a ball in a cool corner of the zoo’s reptile house, but the fake tweets continue.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]