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The 5 Worst Fathers In the Animal Kingdom

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These dads won't be getting any Father's Day cards this Sunday.

1. Lions

Image courtesy of James Hopkirk's Flickr stream

You may already know that a male lion that recently became head of his pride will usually kill all the cubs sired by the previous leader. But while that makes lions terrible step-dads, it doesn’t make them terrible fathers. What makes lions bad dads is a combination of greed and laziness. Papa lions spend most of their day lying in the shade, waiting for one of their wives to bring home dinner. The female does all of the hunting and pretty much all of the parenting. The male’s job is to protect his territory from other prides and scavengers like hyenas.

Once the mama brings home her kill, the male lion is always the first one to eat and he often leaves only scraps for the rest of the pride –including any of his recently weaned children. If it’s a rough hunting season, an alpha lion will let his wives and children starve first.

2. Grizzly Bears

Image courtesy of BC Gov Photos' Flickr stream

It’s rare for any animal-kingdom father to eat his own young when he isn’t desperate for food, but the male grizzly bear will do just that. These baby-daddies are extremely protective of their territories, which can range all the way up to 1,500 miles, and are opportunistic hunters, willing to kill and eat anything that happens to enter their home turf –even their own cubs.

That means mama bears have to be extra good parents, not only making sure to feed their cubs and teach them how to survive on their own, but also ensuring their youngsters never happen to stray into their daddy’s bachelor pad.

3. Bass

Image courtesy of Velo Steve's Flickr stream

There are a lot of bad fathers under the sea. In fact, even those that are highly protective of their spawn, like male bass, are still prone to eating their own children. In the case of the bass, this occurs after most of the newborns have swum away and a few stragglers remain. Suddenly daddy stops protecting his kids from predators and becomes a predator himself, swallowing up all of the stragglers as a reward to himself for helping the strong ones stay alive.

4. Sand Goby

Image courtesy of Preview_H's Flickr stream

Similarly, the male sand goby is relentless about guarding his eggs from predators, but even if he has plenty of extra food available, he will still eat about a third of his brood. Research into how he decides which eggs to keep and which to eat reveals that size matters:  male gobies tend to eat the largest eggs. In many species, large babies mean a higher chance for survival –and thus, they are the most protected members of the family—but the sand goby knows that the largest eggs take longest to hatch. Pops snacks on the eggs that would take the longest to develop so he can get out of there and back to mating as soon as possible.

5. Assassin Bug

Image courtesy of Malcom NQ's Flickr stream

With a name like “assassin bug” you’d hardly expect this insect to be sweet, but filial cannibalism is still pretty gruesome. Daddy assassin bug is tasked with protecting his eggs until they hatch. His tactic mostly involves eating the eggs on the outside edges of the brood, which are otherwise most likely to fall victim to parasitic wasps. This defensive strategy is so hardwired that the bugs do it even in laboratory settings completely devoid of any potential parasites. Scientists believe this is because eating the eggs doesn’t only protect the insects against possible parasites, but also provides the male assassin bug with ample nutrients when his guard duty leaves him unable to forage. Interestingly, assassin bugs do have a bit of a soft spot—the males are some of the only insects that are willing to adopt broods from other fathers. (They don’t eat any extra eggs when their kids are adopted.)

A Few Good Dads

Not all the fathers in nature are so cold-hearted; in fact, some are downright amazing dads.

Image courtesy of eustatic's Flickr stream

You probably already know that seahorse daddies handle pregnancy duties, but they’re not the only ones: the hardhead catfish carries up to 48 eggs in his mouth until they hatch. How does he eat without swallowing down a few of his babies-to-be? He simply starves for two months, until his youngsters all hatch and swim away. Now that’s dedication.

Similarly, the giant African bullfrog carries up to 6,000 eggs in his vocal sacs for six weeks. When they’re ready to be born, he throws up, releasing thousands of baby tadpoles into the world.

Image courtesy of NoiseCollusion's Flickr stream

Every child loves piggyback rides – especially the giant waterbug. That’s because the mom cements up to 150 eggs to dad’s back and papa gives all of his youngsters a piggyback until they are born - a full month later.

The daddy rhea not only sits on his eggs for two months, forgoing food for all but two weeks of the incubation period, but then raises and guards the chicks for the first two years of their lives.
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Happy Father’s Day to all you Flossers! And remember: even if you don't get along, at least your dad never tried to eat you.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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