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10 Other Illegal Animals on a Plane

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Animal smugglers have some serious baggage.

1. A pet turtle

It's tough leaving your pets behind when you go on a trip. On July 29, a man in Guangzhou, China tried to sneak his beloved turtle on a flight to Beijing by hiding the reptile between two hamburger buns and stowing it in a fast food container. When X-ray screening revealed that the meal had tiny legs, the man played it cool and told security, "There's no turtle in there, just a hamburger."

2. Endangered tortoises

In March, animal traffickers in Thailand nearly pulled off something even more shell-shocking—the smuggling of more than 10 percent of an entire endangered species of tortoise. A man was arrested when he tried to pick up a suitcase containing 54 of the approximately 400 ploughshare tortoises left in Madagascar. The luggage also include 21 endangered radiated tortoises.

3. Dried caterpillars

Snacks on a plane! A British man was forced to hand over 206 pounds of dried caterpillars that he brought back from Africa as a tasty souvenir. His intention wasn't suspect—the same emperor moth larvae are already sold and consumed in the U.K. The Border Force was simply following import restrictions. So much for caterpillars and chips...

4. Otters

Security at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport discovered 11 baby otters in an abandoned bag in January. The marine mammals were likely destined for the illegal pet trade. Rescued baby otters can't be returned to the wild, so they'll spend the rest of their days in zoos.

5. A charm of hummingbirds

Is that a dozen hummingbirds in your pants, or are you just happy to see me? Customs officials at Rochambeau Airport in French Guiana detained a fidgety Dutch tourist in September 2011. When he was searched, they found not one, not two, but a dozen live hummingbirds swaddled in individual pouches sewn into his pants. A group of hummingbirds is called a charm, but being smuggled out of the country in some tourist's crotch? Not so charming.

6. A crocodile

Ideally, animal smugglers get caught before they get on a plane. But in October 2010, a domestic flight in the Democratic Republic of Congo turned to chaos when a crocodile escaped the duffel bag it was stowed in. Passengers and crew panicked and ran through the cabin. The plane eventually crashed, killing everyone except for a single passenger and the crocodile. Survival of the fittest? Not so much. The crocodile was later killed.

7. A tiger cub

A woman in Thailand failed to earn her stripes when she tried to smuggle a three-month-old tiger cub from Bangkok to Iran. Her strategy: Putting the drugged cub in a suitcase full of stuffed animals. X-ray screening revealed that one of the cuddly cats had a full skeleton. It was also snoring. Oops.

8. Tropical fish

In June 2005, one traveler made a splash when she flew from Singapore to Melbourne, Australia with a veritable aquarium under her skirt. (Some of us can barely manage a carry-on and one personal item!) Customs officials first suspected something fishy when they heard mysterious sloshing noises. A security pat-down revealed an apron with 15 plastic bags containing 51 tropical catfish. The fish were valued at $30,000, while the woman faced a fine of $83,617. Watching the Little Mermaid get busted: priceless.

9. A chameleon

Sometimes the best place to hide your contraband creature is out in the open. In July 2002, a 17-year-old girl managed to fly from Dubai to Manchester, England with her pet chameleon on her headscarf. The color-changing lizard didn't blend in entirely. Airline employees and passengers just assumed it was a plastic hair clip ... until it flicked out its tongue.

10. Birds and rare orchids and slow lorises, oh my!

In 2002, a California man was flying under the radar on his return trip from Thailand ... until a bird of paradise flew out of his suitcase. Customs found three more birds and 50 rare orchids in the luggage. The man then confessed that he had a pair of endangered slow lorises in his underwear. (Uh, that's what she said?) The man claimed he was an environmentalist trying to transport the animals to a wildlife sanctuary. The four birds ultimately died, and the slow lorises were sent to the Los Angeles Zoo.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.