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7 Oddball Aquatic Mammals We Love

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Everyone knows all about dolphins and whales, and even dolphins that pretend to be whales (the orca! coughcough). But there are over 100 species of marine mammals in the world, and most of them have as much cool stuff going for them as any old Moby Dick.

1. Leopard seal (Hydrurga leptonyx)

You’ve probably heard of the leopard seal, well-known for being one of the world’s fiercest undersea predators; its name comes from its spotted coat, and from its huge mouth full of extremely sharp, terrifying teeth. Unlike other seals, which eat mostly fish, leopard seals feed on warm-blooded animals like seabirds, penguins and, yes, even other seals. Their diverse and surface-dwelling diet allows them to find plenty of food without needing to dive very deep.

2. Amazon River dolphin (Inia geoffrensis)

Known as the boto in Portuguese, the Amazon River dolphin is one of only five species of freshwater dolphin, four of which are severely endangered, and the last of which has gone extinct. The Amazon River Dolphin sometimes called the “pink dolphin,” though it is naturally white, taking on a pink, blue, or brownish hue depending on its diet and environment. The boto’s shape is different from sea-dwelling dolphins: it’s rostrum (snout) is extra long and thin, and instead of a pronounced dorsal fin, it has a long ridge along its back. Due to the low visibility in cloudy river waters, the boto also has tiny, poorly functioning eyes, and therefore relies almost entirely on echolocation to hunt its prey.

3. Dugong (Dugong dugon)

Along with its close relative the manatee, the dugong belongs to an animal order called Sirenia, derived from the belief that these arguably human-shaped creatures inspired tales of mermaids, who sang their siren song to ill-fated sailors. Less glamorously, the manatee and the dugong are informally known as “sea cows,” and use their large, rough lips to graze on sea grasses. In actuality, their closest relative among land animals is the elephant. The dugong is in a separate family than the better-known manatee, however; while the manatee has a completely round tail, the dugong’s tail is fluked, like that of a whale or a dolphin. And while manatees can live in freshwater, dugongs are strictly ocean-dwellers, making them the only marine mammals that subsist entirely on vegetation.

4. Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris)

For decades, scientists credited the sperm whale and elephant seal as performing the deepest and longest dives among air-breathing sea creatures. But recently, studies using digital tags have proven that the unassuming beaked whale leaves all other marine mammals in the proverbial dust. Cuvier’s beaked whale can dive up to 6,230 feet (1,900 meters) and for up to 85 minutes—about 2,00 more feet and 24 minutes beyond the sperm whale. It may not be the most beautiful or graceful of all cetaceans, but its thick, dense body is better suited to withstanding deep-sea pressure than to flitting about upon the waves.

5. Vaquita (Phocoena sinus)

People often use the terms “dolphin” and “porpoise” interchangeably, but the smaller, snub-nosed porpoises differ greatly from their more popular cousins in the Delphinidae family. Also known as the “Gulf of California porpoise,” the vaquita’s name means “little cow” in Spanish. It is endemic to the relatively shallow waters of the Gulf of California, inside Mexico’s Baja peninsula, where commercial fishing and changes in habitat make it one of the most endangered cetaceans on the planet. It’s also the smallest of all cetaceans, at about 4-5 ft. in length.

6. Long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas)

After the killer whale (orca) and the short-finned pilot whale, the long-finned pilot whale is the third-largest member of the dolphin family, Delphinidae (characterized primarily by their cone-shaped teeth). It also looks somewhat similar to the arctic’s beluga whale; both have bulbous “melon” heads, which help them echolocate. But unlike the long-finned pilot whale, the beluga is a true whale, most closely related to the narwhal (the one with the unicorn-looking horn).

In terms of social structure, however, the long-finned pilot whale is without rival. Known for being a gregarious species, with strong, maternally based social structures, they engage in a number of showy social behaviors like breaching, fluking, even swimming in formation, and are one of the species of cetacean most likely engage in mysterious mass strandings.

7. Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)

You read that right: Polar bears are scientifically categorized as marine mammals because they spend a large proportion of their time in the water, and rely on the ocean for survival. Other marine mammals in its order (Carnivora) are otters: the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) and the marine otter (Lontra feline). Which of these would you prefer to meet on a scuba dive?

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]