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Wikimedia Commons

5 Real-Life Zombies

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Wikimedia Commons

While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the dead to rise from their graves, there are still plenty of zombies roaming the Earth. Some of them are in the waters where we swim (not unlike this guy), and many more of them are right underneath our feet.

To get a leg (or six) up in a world that’s red in tooth and claw, some animals have struck upon a peculiar strategy: bending other critters to their will like VooDoo zombie masters and using them as homes, hosts, food or labor. Here are just a few of nature’s zombies and the parasite masters that control them. They’re coming to get you Barbara…

1. Fungus Among Us

When a spore of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis meets an ant, things get very weird and very bad for the ant very quickly. The spore germinates and enters the ant’s body through holes in its exoskeleton. The fungus then starts to grow inside the ant’s body, absorbing soft tissue while leaving vital organs intact, for the ant must remain alive and fully functional for a while longer to be of real use to the fungus.

When O. unilateralis reaches the autumn of its short life and is ready to sporulate and make way for a new generation, its long, branching filaments grow into the ant’s brain. The fungus produces chemicals that poison the ant’s brain and cause it to become transportation to the fungus’ birthing ground—and its own hearse. The ant, no longer in control of its own body, leaves its colony, climbs a plant, and clamps its mandibles around a leaf at the top, fastening it to its grave. There, new life springs into the world, right out of the ant’s head. Now out in the open, the fruiting bodies of the fungus mature and burst, releasing clusters of spore capsules into the air. As they descend, these capsules explode, spreading spores like confetti over the ground. The spores  infect other ants, continuing the fungus’ bizarre life cycle. The whole ordeal, from one infection to the next, can take as little as two weeks.

2. What a Web It Weaves

Thwack

Normally, the web of an orb weaver spider is where bugs meet their untimely death and become spider snacks. Using an arsenal of toxins and mind-altering chemicals, though, the parasitic wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga turns the spider into a slave and a meal, and its web into a safe haven. The female wasp paralyzes the spider with a sting and then lays her egg on its abdomen. When the egg hatches, the larva lives on the spider and sucks hemolymph (kind of the arthropod version of blood) from its body for nourishment.

A few weeks later, the larva is ready to move on to the next stage of its life cycle, and injects the spider with a chemical (as yet unidentified) that alters its behavior. The next time the zombie spider builds a web, it repeats the first few steps over and over again instead of going through all the regular steps, resulting in a web that’s just a few heavily-reinforced anchor threads and a small center section. Then the spider crawls to the center of the web and sits there complacently. The larva molts, kills the only companion it has ever known, sucks any remaining useful bits out from its corpse, and discards it. Then it builds its cocoon on a web custom-built for the job. A few weeks later, the adult wasp emerges and flies away, and the cycle starts over.

3. Roach Motel

Like H. Argyaphaga, the Emerald Cockroach (or Jewel) Wasp is free-living as an adult, but starts life inside a host. As their name suggests, these wasps use cockroaches as living nurseries for their little bundles of joy. When a female wasp is ready to lay her eggs, she swoops in, lands on a roach’s back and plunges her stinger into its midsection. The roach’s legs buckle and it tumbles to the ground, unable to flee or fight back for a short while. This buys the wasp time to play brain surgeon. She slides her stinger through the roach’s head and into its brain, slowly probing until she hits just the right spot. The venom she releases this time doesn’t paralyze the roach; it can move its legs again, but not of its own accord. When the momma wasp grasps its antennae and starts moving, it follows her like an obedient puppy. She leads the roach to her burrow, where she lays her egg on its abdomen and then leaves. All the roach can do is sit and wait. Soon the egg hatches and the larva emerges. It chews into the roach’s abdomen and wriggles inside, where it lives for a week, devouring the roach’s organs the whole while. It forms a pupa and emerges as a full-grown adult a few weeks later, bursting forth from the roach and leaving it buried in the burrow.

4. The Bodyguard

Last wasp, we promise (there are just so many!). The females of the genus Glyptapanteles lay scores of eggs inside caterpillars, and the larva squirm out a short time later to spin their cocoons. It seems like the caterpillar gets off a little easier than those poor roaches and spiders, but its work isn’t done yet. A few of the larva actually stay behind inside the caterpillar and give up their chance to pupate and mature, for the good of their siblings. They take control of their host’s body, and force it to stand guard over the cocoons. The caterpillar waits motionless, unless a potential predator comes too close to the pupae, in which case it thrashes violently at the visitor to drive it away. By the time the adult wasps emerge, the caterpillar, which hasn’t eaten during its guard duty, dies from starvation.

5. Watery Grave

The parasitic hairworm grows up on land—specifically, inside a grasshopper or a cricket—but is aquatic as an adult. To make the transition to water, it forces its host to take it for a swim. The worm pumps the insect full of proteins (which may mimic ones that the host produces on its own) that sabotage its central nervous system and compels it to leap into the nearest body of water. The host drowns and the adult worm, three to four times longer than the corpse it once called home, wriggles out and swims away in search of a mate. The babies they make will infest the water until they're guzzled down by a host they can call their own.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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