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11 Dogs Performing Amazing Tricks

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ThinkStock

For most of us, sit, stay, heel and lay down are pretty much the only essential dog tricks. If you really want a little flair, you might even teach your dog to play dead, beg, roll over or shake. But for some pet owners, these tricks are just child’s play. These 11 dogs have mastered far more interesting tricks, from the useful to the totally bizarre.

1. Does He Speak English?

Skidboot is quite the helper out on this horse ranch. He not only leads the horses around, he retrieves the phone and answers phone calls. As if that weren’t enough, he also listens so well to his master’s commands that he managed to win first place and $25,000 on Pet Star. After more than 10 years in the spotlight, Skidboot passed away.

2. He Should Be In The Olympics

Jumpy may not speak English as well as Skidboot, but his agility is second to none. He can parkour, surf, walk in a hand stand, skateboard on rough terrain and boy, can he jump.

3. Parkour

Tret only has one real amazing talent, but when that skill is free running, that’s all he needs to blow minds. His jumping, climbing and running talents are beyond compare and, best of all, he seems to have a blast practicing his technique.

4. She Does Whatever She’s Told

For those who like a little more obedience mixed in with a set of agility tricks, it’s hard to beat Elee, who does whatever her master wants her to do, whether it means backing herself up a tree, rolling herself in a blanket, crossing her paws a particular way, or playing the drums.

5. Useful Tricks

Jesse is an utterly brilliant dog who specializes in tricks that are truly helpful. In his three part  “Useful Dog Tricks” series, he opens the blinds, wakes up his owners, grabs what he needs for breakfast, makes tea and breakfast, makes the bed, grabs the paper and the mail, throws away trash, goes shopping, puts away toys, takes out the trash, folds and puts away towels, dusts, cleans up spills, vacuums, answers the phone, helps his owners relax after their days at work, and more. He’s like a perfect 1950s housewife in an adorable Jack Russell costume.

6. Getting A Towel Before Going Swimming

There’s nothing like a pup that plans ahead. Chase understands that a dip in the pool means drying off later, so he knows to grab a towel before he dives in. He is even considerate enough to grab an extra towel for his French bulldog friend who doesn’t seem to understand this whole process.

7. Closing the Door

It’s hard to tell if this dog was actually born in this barn, but either way, he still knows that it’s bad manners to just leave the door open.

8. Beer Fetching

Back in the eighties, Spuds MacKenzie was considered the ultimate party dog. But while Spuds was busy chugging all of the Budweiser, this handsome retriever gets busy helping ensure everyone has a fresh, cold beer in their hand.

9. Double Dutch

As someone who could never master Double Dutch jump rope, I find Geronimo’s skills with the game simply mind-blowing—especially considering that he has two extra feet to contend with while jumping.

10. Jenga

Granted, this dog doesn’t actually play Jenga (that would just be ridiculous), but she does provide an excellent building place for the game. Fortunately, her owners don’t make her sit and wait for the entire game to be played before she’s allowed to snack on all these tasty treats.

11. Eye Crossing

Sure, Olive’s trick might not be all that useful compared to some of the other tricks on this list, but I’d like to see you get a dog to cross its eyes even once, let alone on command.

BONUS: Horsing Around

Lest you think only dogs can be trained to perform such useful tasks, here’s Patches the horse riding in a car, getting his owners some beers and answering the phone. Of course, if you do get a horse and try to get him to follow in Patches’ shoes, I highly suggest not feeding it cheeseburgers.

While I’ve never had a dog that could do more than the basics, I have heard of a dentist who trained his dog to pull back his lips so he could “smile.” What about you guys—what’s the weirdest pet trick you’ve ever seen?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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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]

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