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Discovery Channel

Frederique Olivier, Camerawoman on Penguins: Waddle All the Way

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Discovery Channel

Intrepid camerawoman Frederique Olivier has traveled the world capturing stunning images of wildlife in its natural habitat. For the Discovery Channel's new two-hour special, Penguins: Waddle All the Way, premiering tonight at 9 p.m., Olivier faced a very tough shoot indeed: Braving Antarctica's harsh elements for just short of a year. Olivier tells mental_floss how she prepared for the marathon shoot, the conditions she faced, and the footage she's most proud to have captured.

You spent more than 330 days in Antarctica for Penguins: Waddle All the Way. How did this particular shoot compare to some of the other shoots you’ve done? How challenging was it?

Amongst extreme environmental shoots, I have taken part in several other polar expedition shoots, amongst which was another Emperor penguin shoot in 2005 for BBC's Planet Earth and many shoots in the SubAntarctic, which is extremely wet. Australian desert shoots were also pretty difficult due to extreme heat, but that's probably because I spent too much time in Antarctica.

Antarctic shoots are especially challenging because of the extreme cold and winds, and really humans aren't supposed to be there. Because of this, conducting standard wildlife camera work becomes even more of a challenge. Being immobile for many hours waiting for a 10 second event to happen, not being able to move to warm up your extremities, was probably the biggest challenge in the winter months, and risky for the body. As soon as you pull out in order not to risk being frozen, what you intended to film happens, as per normal. It was physically and mentally demanding but very rewarding when the images were in the can.

Doing it for over 300 days without much of a break was an even bigger mental challenge. With the Spycams, the shoot relied on shooting as many hours of footage as possible in order to capture special events. Although some Spycams can be left operating on their own, the presence of a cameraperson is necessary at most times to at least monitor the colony.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

How do you prepare for a shoot like this one?

The best way to prepare is to gather the right gear for the tasks. One has to be fully self sufficient down there, so we prepared large quantities of sea ice safety gear to live on the frozen sea, and even larger quantities of down to survive in extremely low temperatures, which went down to -30 Celsius, without wind—i.e., -64 Celsius with the windchill factor of a 40 knot wind. The latter freezes your skin in a couple of minutes, so face masks were a must.

I was lucky to have done a lot of work in Antarctica and could rapidly re-adapt to working camera gear with thick gloves or wearing blizzard googles. Customizing personal equipment and preparing systems were key to the shoot.

This shoot was especially long so it was like a marathon. Living in an isolated place with limited contact to the outside world for so long away from friends and family is a social/mental challenge in itself. The very limited amount of daylight during winter rmonths does not help and we were happy to see the days get longer after midwinter

This shoot was special because it partly relied on a large number of Spycams to collect the footage, which made it an even bigger challenge.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

When did you go to Antarctica? What was the longest stretch of time you spent there?

We left Hobart for Antarctica on February 18, 2012 and returned on February 1, 2013, so yes, it was more than 330 days uninterrupted. Some of it was spent transiting on a small rolling ship—5 days either way—crossing the sea ice to reach Dumont D'Urville station.

Antarctica is one of the remotest places on Earth and can not be accessed with any ship or plane during the austral winter months, because of the darkness and the sea ice. Emperor penguins breed during winter and there is no way to conduct a shoot following them from their arrival on the sea ice to the departure of their chicks without spending nearly a year down there.

As mentioned above, the challenge was as much in the duration of this shoot as in the exposed conditions we worked in. Sometimes you come out of looking 10 years older!

An additional challenge is that the footage had to be sorted and logged on site and was compressed and uploaded via satellite on a regular basis. This added a tremendous number of hours of computer work at the end of already long and challenging days.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

Did you have a crew with you?

We were a film crew of two, myself as a camera and Martin Passingham as remote camera assistant. We were based either in a small hut a few kilometres from Dumont D'Urville station or at the station itself, where we shared life with 27 French people. We were the only Australians at the base, although I am French also.

What sort of shots were you trying to capture? Did you have a wish list, or was it just sort of “head out there and see what you can get”?

There wasn't really a wish list because one never knows what special events are going to be captured with the Spycams. The key for such a shoot was to have the cameras deployed for as many days and hours per days as possible.

However, Emperor key behavioural shots, such as Egg exchange and Chick exchange, were definitely on the list and I was lucky to have witnessed them years before so I knew what to target.

But we also, by chance, managed to capture some very special footage totally unexpectedly such as the laying of the precious egg by the female—a world premiere.

Which shot was the toughest to get, or which shot are you most proud of?

Shots that were extremely difficult to get were the chick departure shots. It was never obvious where and when they were going to decide to jump, some waiting up to 48 hours to make the big step. A patience testing game ... The chick or egg exchange shots of course are also very challenging ones to achieve as the birds do hesitate for hours prior to doing the business.

But the egg laying shot was probably my most special shot because it was never captured before. And my favorite would be the underwater chick departure shot, the combination of a challenge and a premiere.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

How did your previous experience filming birds, and filming in Antarctica, help you?

Having done an Emperor penguin shoot before certainly helped me a lot as I knew the birds, how sensitive they were to humans and what to look for in terms of behavior, which is a huge advantage. It was an incredible opportunity to get to winter with Emperor penguins a second time and to date, I believe I am the only person who has done two Emperor winter shoots—a bit mad! Having done a winter shoot before helped better prepare for this one, although this second shoot was completely different from the first one.

Did you see any penguin behavior that surprised you?

The behavior that mostly surprised us may have been the lack of defense reaction of the Emperors towards predators like giant petrels when their chicks get attacked. Although they are a very big bird and can be swift (enough) and threatening with their big beak, they are very pacific and few of them showed any aggressive behavior, even towards a nasty predator.

Photo by Frederique Olivier. Courtesy of the Discovery Channel.

When you’re shooting in Antarctica, what kind of equipment do you use? Did you have to modify it specifically to shoot penguins?

The equipment we used in Antarctica was partly standard camera equipment and a large proportion of Spycams, which are animatronics cameras; we totalled 16 of them.

The Spycams were of course disguised as Emperor penguins in various postures and used together with a large number of Egg cams. The main challenge for the development was to create Spycams that would be close enough to reality that the Emperor would be tricked to believe they were one of theirs or even show an interest as a potential mate or chick … and it worked! The mechanics and electronic behind those are complex and many had to be modified to bear the extreme cold and still function filled with snow.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]