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10 Things You Should Know About Rhinos

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Rhinos are amazing and massive animals that easily capture the imagination of their admirers both at zoos and in the wild. Unfortunately, they’re facing serious threats and their numbers are dwindling lower all the time. In honor of Endangered Species Day today, here’s a deeper look at the armored tank of animals.

Black rhino image courtesy of Alison Sanfacon's Flickr stream.

1. Like many English words, "rhinoceros" comes from words of another language--in this case, Greek. Rhinoceros is made from the words rhino (nose) and keras (horn). So next time you use the shortened version of their name, just realize that you’re saying nothing more than “nose.”

2. A group of rhinos is properly referred to as a “crash.”

3. Don’t expect them to put out your fires. While there are tons of legends from Malaysia, India and Burma stating that rhinos instinctively charge at campfires and stamp them out, there have been no recorded instances of the animals actually doing this. While rhinos do have a highly evolved sense of smell, and the scent of smoke really irritates them, it still seems unlikely that a rhino would charge directly at a fire no matter what you may have seen in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

White rhino image courtesy of gmacfadyen's Flickr steam.

4. Despite their names, white and black rhinos are pretty much the same color. That’s because the names don’t actually have much to do with the animals' skin tone at all. The white rhino was originally called “whyde” by Dutch settlers, referring to the creature’s wide square mouth. The name was eventually anglicized to white and, surprisingly enough, the black rhino was only so named in an effort to distinguish it from the white rhino.

While they may look similar, there are differences between the species: the black rhino has two more chromosomes than the white rhino; the white rhinos have broad lips for grazing on grass and the black rhinos have long lips for eating foliage off of plants; and black rhinos weigh about half as much as their white counterparts. Even with their differences though, the two species can still interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

Indian rhino image courtesy of Wikipedia user Krish Dulal.

5. It’s not just a black & white issue. While black rhinos and white rhinos are the most common and the most well-known, they aren’t the only rhinos around. The Indian rhinoceros can now be found only in Nepal and northeastern India near the foothills of the Himalayas, although they once roamed over an area stretching all the way from Pakistan to China. These rhinos are easily recognizable since they only have one horn (hence their other name, the greater one-horned rhinoceros) and have odd wart-like bumps around their upper legs and shoulders.

The lesser one-horned rhino (a.k.a. the Javan rhinoceros) is also pretty easy to recognize, as the females rarely have a horn larger than a nub and the males have much smaller horns than other rhino species. The Javan variety are also much smaller and a little smoother than their Indian cousins, although you’re unlikely to see a Javan rhino any time soon. This is the rarest of all rhino species and one of the rarest large mammals in the world with, unfortunately, only around 40 alive today. While their name might lead you to believe they are native to Java, they were actually widespread throughout Asia until they were hunted to extinction in practically every country except the Indonesian islands.

Perhaps the most visually striking rhino, though, is the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is the furriest and smallest of all living rhino species. As you might imagine, their reddish brown fur was an evolutionary adaptation to help the rhino better deal with the cold environment in its high altitude range in Borneo and Sumatra. The Sumatran rhino is the most archaic of all species, evolving into its current form over 15 million years ago, and is more closely related to the woolly rhinoceros of the ice age than any of the other living species.

6. Rhinos' feet are surprisingly sensitive. As they walk, rhinos put most of their weight on their toenails. In the wild, they walk around in grasslands, marshes and wetlands, which don’t wear down their toenails all that much.

Unfortunately, when the creatures are brought to zoos and held in concrete or asphalt enclosures, the nails wear down and the rhinos have to walk on their foot pads. As a result, they often get swollen, sore and cracked feet that can quickly become infected. In fact, one zoo helped correct the problem by gluing modified horseshoes onto their rhino’s toes, allowing him to better deal with the asphalt ground. If you want to read more about the procedure (and other animal zoo stories), I highly recommend The Rhino With Glue-On Shoes.

Javan rhino image by Lawrence Anson Wong's Flickr.

7. Rhinos need our help. With only 60 40 remaining Javan rhinos left in the world, it’s obvious the variety is in peril, but they’re not the only ones. All rhinos are in danger at this point. In fact, there are only about 275 Sumatran rhinos, 17,500 white rhinos and 2,675 Indian rhinos alive today. Furthermore, while white rhinos are doing alright as a whole, the Northern white rhino subspecies is down to only around 10 individuals. Equally shocking, the black rhino’s numbers have dropped sharply, from 70,000 in the late sixties to 2,450 today. To help, you can always donate to The International Rhino Foundation.

8. While loss of habitat has been a problem for the beasts, their biggest threat is poaching and, unfortunately, this problem is only getting worse. In 2010, a record number of rhinos, 333 to be exact, were killed in South African National Parks, and in 2011 the number increased to 448. Some officials estimate that only 3% of poachers are actually being caught. To stop the killing, reserves have tried a variety of tactics, including removing the horns altogether (the rhinos rarely need to use them to defend themselves), using a fluorescent pesticide on the horns to protect the rhino from bugs, catching poachers at the airports, and applying poison to deter buyers of the horn. In some case, mercenaries even kill suspected poachers on site.

No matter what officials do to try to stop the killers though, the lure of massive amounts of money, especially during the global recession, is just too powerful. So how much are rhino horns worth? Well, one average size horn can easily bring in a quarter of a million dollars.

Sumatran rhino image courtesy of Wikipedia user Ltshears.

9. One of the saddest things about the murder of these magnificent beasts is the fact that their horns, despite some Eastern medicinal practitioners' claims, are essentially useless as a medical treatment. That’s because rhino horns aren’t made from any special material; they contain nothing but keratin, the same proteins as human hair and fingernails.

10. There is hope though. Remember that there are up to 17,500 white rhinos? Well, most of them are of the Southern white rhino subspecies. While there are now around 16,250 in the wild, at the turn of the twentieth century that number was closer to 100. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of organizations like the San Diego Zoo, the numbers skyrocketed in the latter half of the century. With any luck, the Northern white rhino and the Javan rhino populations can rebound as well.

Happy Endangered Species Day everyone, and remember, if you want to help a variety of endangered critters, including rhinos, the World Wildlife Fund is a always a great place to donate.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]