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7 Awesome Things Birds Can Do

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If you live in any U.S. city, you probably think those pesky, puke-eating pigeons and their feathered friends are pretty brain dead. Don’t be fooled. Birds are capable of some pretty amazing feats, and we’ve provided a sampling below. Know any other cool things birds can do? Share the love in the comments below.

1. Look Extremely Beautiful Without Any Makeup

Humans spend a crazy amount of money on tattoos to dye their skin, and also a hell of a lot of time in front of the mirror. Are we jealous of these ridiculously colored birds? Maybe a little. 

2. Take Photographs

A “carrier pigeon,” which is not a specific breed but rather an occupation, can be trained to fly between two points rather reliably, typically by placing their food at one location and their nest at another. People have actually used this method to deliver messages, but German apothecary Julius Neubronner took it a step further when he strapped a time-delay camera to a bird and invented pigeon photography, which was tested out for military use in WWI.

3. Make and Use Weapons

In fact, a lot of birds use tools to help them hunt. For example, the woodpecker finch from the Galápagos Islands uses a twig to pry insects out of bark, as does the Caledonian crow, who uses its beak to sharpen sticks into spears.

4. Speak Better English Than a Toddler

This goes beyond “Polly want a cracker.” An African grey parrot learned a vocabulary of more than 100 words and the labels of more than 35 objects.

5. Become Art Snobs

A 1995 study showed that pigeons can learn to distinguish a painting by Picasso from one by Monet. The study humorously noted that if birds and students went through the same training methods, the students might too learn the differences.

6. Build Incredibly Small Houses Out of Whatever

And here we are, struggling to construct our IKEA furniture. Ever see how small a hummingbird nest is? The size of a key sounds about right. And house finches will literally use whatever they can find. This photographer is so obsessed with nests, he takes pictures of them all the time.

7. Fly Really Far Distances Without Complaining

Talk about nonstop service! A shore bird called the whimbrel can navigate tropical storms, fly nearly 30 miles per hour, and has been documented as flying nonstop for thousands of miles. One tagged bird researchers were keeping an eye on flew seven nonstop flights of more than 2000 miles each before it was shot by hunters on Guadeloupe.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]