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7 Surprising Ways Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You

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It's no secret that a lot of things in nature want to kill you. You're surely familiar with some of Mother Nature's more aggressive weapons: the cobra, the black widow, the volcano, the bright red toadstools. But what about the more subtle, rarer methods of execution? Death disguised in pretty rocks, beans, and beautiful sea creatures? Here are seven lesser-known natural assassins that may be lurking in your life.

1. On your patio: the castor bean plant

These plants are popular patio decorations in warmer regions of America. It's a beautiful plant during all stages of its bloom, at the end of which the bean (actually a seed) becomes a vibrant prickly flower. The real name of the castor bean plant is Ricinus communis. And its seeds are where the deadly poison ricin comes from. A lethal dose for humans is four to six seeds, which, unless treated, brings on a very slow and painful death (burning sensation in mouth and throat, abdominal pain, purging, and bloody diarrhea).

2. In your rock collection: Hutchinsonite

If hell were made up of one particular rock, it would probably be Hutchinsonite. Discovered by Arthur Hutchinson in 1904, Hutchinsonite is a mixture of sulphur, thallium, lead, and arsenic. Three of those four minerals are lethal to humans, and the fourth one, sulphur, isn't terribly pleasant either. Mindat, the largest mineral database on the internet, warns emphatically, "Avoid inhaling dust when handling or breaking. Never lick or ingest."

3. While on a tropical vacation: blue-ringed octopus

The blue-ringed octopus is just the sort of hallucinogenic beauty a scuba diver would hope to discover while exploring coral reefs off the coast of Australia. The tiny octopus (5 to 8 inches) actually looks quite plain until it is agitated, at which point it will become bright yellow with brilliant blue rings. It then begins to bite, producing a neurotoxic venom for which there is no anti-venom. Each octopus carries enough venom to kill 26 humans. The bites are tiny, and sometimes a diver might not even know he was bitten... until his heart stops and his lungs are paralyzed.

4. In your organic foods: hemlock

The poison hemlock family of plants includes some clever little killers. Hemlock has mastered the art of disguise. It is one of many wild "carrot" plants, most of which are harmless and often edible. It looks a lot like the harmless Queen Anne's lace, but hemlock will paralyze your respiratory muscles and kill you from lack of oxygen. Would you bet your life on which is which?

5. In the dirt: Coccidioides

In certain parts of southwestern America, even the dirt is trying to kill you. Well, not actually the dirt, but a fungus, called Coccidioides immitus, that lives in the dirt. This fungus is easily kicked up and made airborne, from construction, farming, wind, and earthquakes. When inhaled, the fungus produces an illness called cocci, or "valley fever." The good news is only about 5 percent of people infected with cocci actually develop the disease. But it can get ugly when they do. Without treatment, cocci can spread throughout the body, devouring everything it touches. It can cause skin ulcers, abscesses, bone lesions, severely swollen joints, heart inflammation, urinary tract problems, and meningitis, which can lead to death.

6. In your fish tank: palytoxin

Zoanthids are tiny little marine animals that like to live on coral and rocks. They live comfortably in some home aquariums and occasionally accumulate in seafood as well. And they are absolutely teeming with palytoxin, one of the more deadly poisons known to man. Should a person eat seafood that has ingested too many zoanthids, scrape an open wound across a zoanthid, or, as in one peculiar case, inhale palytoxin while trying to clean their aquarium, horrible things can happen. He will experience rhabdomyolysis. This means his skeletal muscles break down and the content of his cells will leak into the blood. The body begins, quite quickly, to suffer nearly every imaginable effect of poisoning, from kidney failure to prickling, burning skin. The cause behind most palytoxin death is heart failure.

7. On your hot springs vacation: hydrogen sulfide

Some people call it sewer gas; some just call it stink damp. When organic material decomposes (in sewers, swamps, or natural fertilizers) under the right conditions, it can produce a lethal gas called hydrogen sulfide. It is also produced when some sulfide minerals (like those lining the walls of natural wells and springs) are mixed with water. When this gas is released into the air, it can kill a person before he draws in his second breath of it. Even the natural warning, the rotten egg smell of sulphur, can't be counted on as hydrogen sulfide deadens the sense of smell. Not to mention it is also corrosive, flammable, and highly explosive. The good news is low exposure does little harm. The bad news is high exposure can come with little warning.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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