Original image
Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

The Weird Week in Review

Original image
Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks

State Record Gator Killed in Mississippi -Twice

Labor Day was a big weekend for alligator hunting in Mississippi. A six-person crew led by hunter Sean King of Yazoo City hooked what they joked was the Loch Ness Monster in Issaquena County. They hauled in an alligator that weighed 723.5 pounds, breaking the state record.

But the record was only good for about an hour. At the same time, Dustin Bockman of Vicksburg and his crew were chasing a very large alligator in the Mississippi River near Port Gibson. They were able to shoot the animal after a couple of hours of wrangling. Then there was a several-hours wait for help getting him into a boat. That's when he heard about the earlier 723-pound gator.

Bockman said he couldn’t believe it and thought he’d probably missed his chance at the claim of harvesting a state-record alligator by an hour. “I knew he was over 700, but I wasn’t sure about 723,” he said.

However, when Bockman’s 13-foot, 4.5-inch gator was lifted, the scales stopped at 727 pounds and the hour-old state record fell.

Believe it or not, those weren't the only gator records broken in Mississippi. Earlier in the weekend, Brandon “Boo” Maskew of Ellisville bagged a a female alligator weighing 295.3 pounds, setting a state record for the longest and heaviest female caught.

Stork Held On Suspicion Of Spying

A man fishing in the Nile river at Qena, Egypt, spotted a stork that had a suspicious electronic device attached to it. He captured the bird and alerted authorities to a possible case of espionage. Qena security chief Mohammed Kamal said the bird was taken into custody. Eventually, authorities figured out that the electronic device was a wildlife tracker, attached to the bird by French scientists. The device only worked within French borders, so the bird was cleared of spying charges. However, the bird remained in police custody until permission for its release could be obtained from higher-ups. And you thought the stork only brought babies.

Online Class on The Walking Dead

The University of California at Irvine is offering a free online class called “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead.” Four instructors from the departments of social science, public health, physics, and mathematics will each relate their field to the scenario of a zombie apocalypse. The class has been endorsed by AMC, which even made cast members available to the instructors for interviews. The eight-week class will begin October 14th, the day after the new season of the TV series premieres.

Snake in Toilet Discovered at Texas Starbucks

Bruce Ahlswede visited the men's room at a Starbucks outlet in San Antonio, Texas, where he got a "grande" surprise. A snake was draped across the toilet! He first thought it was a prank toy snake, but then it moved. When Ahlswede summoned his wife and store employees to see, the snake slithered around and disappeared -down into the pipes. But it was caught on camera. A snake expert from the South Texas Herpetology Association studied the photo and declared it to be a non-poisonous rat snake. The snake was never caught.

Children Burned by Fruit

Stephanie Ellwanger of Hanford, England, took her two daughters and three of their friends to a pool party. By the next morning, the girls looked to be badly sunburnt. All five girls developed burns to the point of blisters, and were taken to a hospital. They were all admitted with second-degree burns over 15% of their bodies. Doctors suspected chemical burns.

A neighbor had a large lime tree that grew over the fence into the backyard where the girls went swimming. They had picked some of the fruits and squeezed them out into imaginary tea cups in their play lemonade stand.

Was there something on the limes? Ellwanger wondered about pesticides. She mentioned this to the doctors, then went home to do some research.

A few attempts on Google yielded a term she’d never heard before: Phytophotodermatitis, a chemical reaction that makes bare skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet light. It’s caused by contact with photosensitizing compounds which occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables — like limes.

The girls spent two weeks in the hospital, and now have to be home schooled to avoid sunlight. Phytophotodermatitis can be caused by lemon, lime, celery, carrot, and other foods.

Inmate Caught with "Derrieringer"

Mark Gregory Valadez of Wichita, Kansas, was arrested by the Oklahoma City Police Sunday morning on a unnamed minor charge. He was taken to the local jail, where he underwent a pat-down, but not an invasive search or a trip through a metal detector. About 16 hours later, he was finally subjected to a full body cavity search, which yielded a loaded gun found in his rear end. The Derringer held one bullet. Valdez was then charged with possessing contraband in a penal institution, which is a felony. Valdez was taken to a hospital due to suffering the "adverse impact of placing a Derringer inside his body."

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
Original image

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]