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Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University
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This Rare Shipworm Is Not Safe for Work

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Matthew Modoono / Northeastern University

Scientists recently found a massive, suggestively shaped shipworm squelching through the mudflats of the Philippines—the first time the creature has been spotted alive. They described the “beefy, muscular” animal in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shipworms are extraordinary creatures. They’re best known for making marine archaeologists' lives harder by riddling sunken ships with holes. As our planet's oceans heat up, so, too, does the rivalry between researchers and shipworms, which are moving fast into now-comfortably warm waters full of Viking ships. It's an "alarming scenario," the leaders of Denmark's Wreck Protect project note on their site.

Shipworms aren't true worms, but bivalves like mussels and clams. But where a clam’s slimy foot is relatively short, the shipworm’s just keeps going. The majority of shipworm species are “very delicate, translucent, usually white, beige or pink,” lead investigator Daniel Distel of Northeastern University in a statement. “They’re mostly small, a few centimeters long.”

And then there’s Kuphus polythalamia, which is decidedly … not delicate. People have been finding its rigid, tusk-like, 3- to 5-foot-long shells for hundreds of years, so scientists knew the giant shipworm existed. They’d just never seen one alive.

Then a Philippine television channel aired a documentary about a strange lagoon where long, stiff stalks emerged like fence posts from the mud, and local people ate the shipworm as a delicacy. A researcher sent the video to Distel and his colleagues, all of whom got pretty excited.

"For a biologist who is interested in these bivalves, it's like a unicorn," said senior author Margo Haygood of the University of Utah.

Distel, Haygood, and their team went on an expedition to the muddy lagoon, and there they found the shipworms. They rinsed off one specimen, packed it in a PVC pipe, and ferried it carefully back to the lab for closer inspection.

"When I took that thing out of the tube, there was a collective gasp among the whole group," says Distel, "along with quite a number of expletives." The shipworm was “like a baseball bat.”

The creature from the sticky lagoon is more than just an oddity. Unlike other shipworms, it doesn’t seem to eat wood—or anything else, for that matter. It’s not a matter of scarcity; the lagoon where the researchers picked their K. polythalamia was full of rotting wood. But that bounty goes untouched, and the giant shipworm’s digestive organs have withered to nearly nothing. So how does it live?

By making friends with microbes. The shipworm "consumes" hydrogen sulfide gas, a natural byproduct of wood decay, which is then processed into nutrients by the bacteria living within its enormous gills.

If it doesn't feed on the wood itself, why bother with wood at all? The researchers believe K. polythalamia is a descendent of a wood-eating ancestor, but that over time it formed this unique relationship with the bacteria it hosts. "We believe that somewhere along the line a shipworm acquired a sulfur-oxidizing bacteria as a symbiont, and it was able to get energy not just from the wood but also from the inorganic gas hydrogen sulfide coming from the wood as it rotted," Distel said. "Eventually the new symbiosis completely replaced the old symbiosis."

Now there's a way to make nice with the archaeologists.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
entertainment
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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]

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