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Even Entomologists Are Scared of Spiders

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Wikimedia Commons

Some entomologists, the scientists that study insects, have a work life that presents a challenge: they’ve devoted their careers to creepy-crawly animals, work with them every day, sometimes get up close and personal with them and are maybe even fond of them, but they’re scared of or disgusted by spiders. 

After asking around among working entomologists, arachnologist Richard Vetter found 41 researchers who are afraid of spiders or at least averse to them, and discovered an apparent paradox. “They don't find anything gross about bugs in general—as long as those bugs have the right number of legs,” he writes in the new paper about his survey. “Despite the assumption that entomologists would extend warm feelings toward spiders because of their habituation to arthropods in general, arachnophobia does occur in some members of our profession. For these people, two more legs makes a big difference.”

Vetter interviewed these entomologists about their negative experiences with spiders and which aspects of spiders they don’t like, then had them complete a “Fear of Spiders Questionnaire,” rate their disgust and fear of spiders and give like/dislike scores to other animals. 

He got a wide range of responses. Some of the interviewees professed only a mild disgust or fear of spiders, but still claimed to react to them differently than to insects. For example, some of them said an insect crawling on their arm is tolerable, but a spider would get brushed away. One forensic entomologist who routinely works with maggots gave spiders a high disgust score on their survey and said that they would “rather pick up a handful of maggots than have to get close enough to a spider to kill it.” On the other hand, some entomologists’ scores and ratings suggest that they’re clinically arachnophobic. 

Like layperson arachnophobes, Vetter found that most of the entomologists developed their feelings toward spiders in childhood, often because of a negative incident. One scientist recounted that her father once teased her with a large spider in a jar and later watched a spider egg sac burst open on her mattress. Another described a childhood nightmare that recurred over four years, wherein she ran into the large web of a human-sized spider and woke up just before being eaten. Despite the distance of time and experience with insects, these fears couldn’t be overcome in adulthood. The researcher who had the eggs in her bed has such a strong fear of spiders that she had considered counseling, but avoided it for fear that she might have to encounter live spiders as part of her therapy. 

Of the things about spiders that the entomologists don’t like, a few stuck out. One was that “they bite,” even among the scientists that work with insects that also bite or sting. One researcher who works with Hymenoptera, the order that includes bees, wasps and ants, said that while he does get stung in his research and finds the stings painful, stinging insects still don’t provoke the same negative response that spiders do. 

Another thing the entomologists don’t like about spiders is the way they move. Sixty percent of the researchers said that the fact that spiders run fast and show up unexpectedly contributed to their feelings about them. One researcher (the eggs-in-the-bed lady again) had the opposite problem, and said it was the slower, more deliberate movements of spiders like tarantulas that bothered her. 

More than half of the entomologists also said that spiders’ many legs contributed to their fear and disgust. “Although this is also a common response from the general public, who are more accustomed to bipeds and quadrupeds,” Vetter notes, “it is curious that entomologists, who work with hexapods, would find the additional pair of legs in spiders to be a significant negative feature, instead of just assimilating spiders into the same broad arthropod morphological scheme.” Six legs are just fine. Eight? No thanks.

When the entomologists rated their like or dislike of 30 other animals, insects took four of the top five "like" spots, with butterflies getting the top score and dolphins breaking the insect monopoly. Spiders were, no surprise, ranked highly unlikeable, coming in second to last. The only animal the entomologists liked less was the tick. 

Vetter points out that other research has found that many arachnophobes anthropomorphize spiders, thinking of them as vengeful or malicious. The impression he got from his interviews, though, was that the entomologists didn’t do this and realized their fears or dislikes of spiders were paradoxical, but couldn’t overcome them. One of the scientists Vetter interviewed specialized in, of all things, spiders, and said that even though he worked with them professionally, he could not help but be creeped out by them. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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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]

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