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Wikimedia Commons

11 Really Weird Snakes

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Wikimedia Commons

Gliding through treetops, dining on crawdads, and hunting with false “tentacles” aren’t activities we normally associate with snakes. But serpents are a far more diverse lot than they’re generally given credit for. Here are 11 of the oddest.

1. Malagasy Leaf-nosed snake (Langaha madagascariensis)

These strange-looking Madagascarian reptiles get their name from the distinctive scaly structures on their snouts. In females, these are jagged and leaf-shaped while those of males are long and tapered. The exact function of these appendages remains a mystery. 

2. Queen Snake (Regina septemvittata)

As the incomparable Sir David Attenborough explains in this clip, the North American queen snake dines exclusively on recently-moulted crayfish: a highly-specialized diet which renders them particularly vulnerable to water pollution.

3. Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Should you ever happen to frighten a wild hognose, you’re in for a show! These toad-eating thespians will dramatically writhe on their backs before going completely limp and playing dead … often going so far as to let their tongues dangle pathetically from their gaping maws.

4. Tentacled Snake (Erpeton tentaculatum)

The knobby appendages which give the aquatic predator its name are actually motion detectors which aid in the capture of its fishy prey, as Scientific American explains in the clip above.

5. Flying Snake (Chrysopelea paradisi)

Transforming themselves into living parachutes, these Asian gliders flatten their bodies before leaping from tree limbs when startled, showing off some majestic mid-air slithering in the process.

6. Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)

These infamous snakes (along with a few other species) are of academic significance because of a curious reproductive strategy used by some females: their reproductive system enables them to reproduce without mating by way of an amazing phenomenon called “parthenogenesis." Remarkably, some will choose to do so even when males are present.

7. Worm Snake (Carphophis amoenus)

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A tiny pinkish North American burrower, the primitive worm snake is almost never seen on the surface, preferring to hunt subterranean earthworms to which it bears an uncanny first-glance resemblance.

8. Elephant Trunk Snake (Acrochordus javanicus)

Monster Fish Keepers

Wrinkled and baggy, the loose skin of this aptly-named river-dweller actually helps it capture slippery fish: the sharp scales it contains dig into the victim, preventing escape.

9. Hairy Bush Viper (Atheris hispida)

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No reptile actually grows hair, but this African viper’s frayed scales certainly give it a manic appearance.

10. Spider-Tailed Viper (Pseudocerastes urarachnoides)

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As its common name suggests, the spider-tailed viper has evolved a series of thin, wispy scales on its tail which, when wiggled, look enticingly spider-like to its arachnid-guzzling prey:

11. Black-Banded Sea Krait (Laticauda semifasciata)

Although one of the world’s most venomous snakes, these semiaquatic creatures have a generally passive demeanor (even when handled), preferring to reserve their poison for the various fish they dine upon.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]