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Ants Shape Their Bodies to the Jobs They Do

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For ants and other social insects, form and function have strong ties. While all the insects in a colony are built from the same basic body plan and share similar genes, the size and shape of their bodies can differ radically according to the roles they play and the jobs they do. Queen ants, for example, are large and winged and are responsible for making more little ants, while the workers are smaller and wingless and keep the colony maintained and fed. 

But there’s more to the difference between the two than wings or no wings, says a new study. Workers aren’t just earth-bound versions of queens. Their thoraxes (the middle section of an ant where the legs are) are actually specially suited to their jobs. Meanwhile, the queens’ bodies will come in different shapes depending on the way they start a new colony.

Researchers from France and Portugal used images from microscopes and preserved and dissected ants to inspect the thoraxes of more than 100 ant species, including some that are extinct. They found over and over again that the first section of the thorax closest to a worker ant’s head was enlarged and more muscular than a queen’s. These strong, flexible necks allow workers more strength and mobility when moving their heads and lifting with their jaws—a nice thing to have when you sometimes have to carry home prey that’s 30 to 90 times your own weight. These muscular tweaks, the researchers think, help ants “use to their heads and mandibles in novel ways, and exploit a broader spectrum of resources.”

The researchers also found that two queens can differ anatomically according to how they found colonies. In some species, the queens are claustral, and seal themselves up inside their new nest and raise the colony’s first generation on energy stores from their bodies. Other species have non-claustral queens, which hunt and forage outside the nest to feed the first generation until there are enough workers to take on that job. 

In the non-claustral queens, the researchers found large, muscular necks that were pretty close in size to the workers and would give them an advantage when taking food back to the nest. The claustral queens had smaller necks, but larger wing segments. These stronger wing muscles aren’t for better flight, but meant to store more amino acids for feeding the young colony. Looking at the ant evolutionary family tree, including some queens that have “intermediate” body types that are in between these two, the researchers think that as some species became claustral, their queens’ neck muscles got smaller as they became less necessary and the wing muscles had room to expand, making it easier to feed a new brood. 

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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]