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A History of the Pigeon

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One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Charles Darwin set out with a survey voyage, aboard the HMS Beagle, in what would be a groundbreaking expedition for his own theories, and the way the world would come to see the origin of species. Intrigued by the vast differences in the closely-related mockingbirds and finches on the Galapagos, Darwin brought this curiosity home to England, and found a way to test his thoughts on speciation, using an animal equally admired and despised: the pigeon. Specifically, “fancy pigeons,” the odd, often comical, sometimes scary-looking breeds of pigeon, whose popularity and availability was burgeoning just as Darwin needed specimens.

By crossbreeding the many species of fancy pigeon, he showed that contrary to the commonly-held belief that there were two different species which led to the diverse lot of the domestic pigeons, they all arose from just one wild species: the Rock Dove (Columba livia). Though he professed to never developing a true fondness for the creatures, his fascination with them and interest in their origins allowed him to show himself that the theories he was developing were, in fact, probable, and he was not mistaking coincidence for causation.

Pigeons and Civilization


Long before Darwin, the rock doves of Mesopotamia and Sumer flocked to the fertile fields, pecking at seeds, and were soon encouraged to roost in nest-houses in cities and on farms. Their squabs (fat, nearly-grown nestlings) provided rich sources of protein, in a land where wild game had grown scarce. While domesticated red junglefowl (now our common chickens) were the poultry of choice in India and much of Asia, pigeons (rock doves) were the predominant meat bird and religious sacrifice in the Middle East and Europe for millennia.

Soon after their domestication, pigeons became far more than just sources of meat. People watched them and realized that their behavior mimicked that which we held in highest esteem in humans: they’re monogamous, each of a pair serving and caring for the other and their offspring; they have a strong homing instinct, and fierce protection instinct in the nest; yet they’re largely peaceful creatures, highly intelligent but living what humans saw as a simple and ideal life.

Humanity exploited these traits in breeding successful messenger pigeons as far back as ancient Phoenicia. In many lands, we deified and exalted the species. Noah released a dove from his ark, which returned to him. The goddesses Ishtar, Venus, and Aphrodite are all represented by doves. In Christian iconography, the dove is said to represent the Holy Spirit, and in China, doves were said to represent fidelity and longevity. Doves even found their way into the questionable “cures” of old, supposedly warding off the plague and palsies.

The ubiquitous pigeons that populate our cities and towns are all descendants of escaped domesticated pigeons, and cross-breeding with the wild rock doves in their native European habitats has led to a near-extinction of the pure-type Columba livia. In the Americas, however, no such cross-breeding has occurred. Why? Well, our only native pigeon was the Passenger Pigeon, and they’ve been extinct for over a hundred years. Yep, all of our American pigeons are “imports,” just like dandelions. Wildly successful, adaptable, and reproducing faster than we can control, feral pigeons spread to every corner of the inhabited world, outside of Antarctica.

But even as the escaped or released pigeons overtook our cities, the ones who stayed captive proved their usefulness. In wartime, messenger pigeons have been used successfully for thousands of years, back to the battles of the Greek city-states. More recently, WWI saw heavy action with these fast-flying “thoroughbreds of the sky.” The pigeons could deliver messages faster and more effectively (with a 95 percent arrival rate) than any human messenger, and one pigeon, named Cher Ami, even delivered a message after it lost a leg and got a bullet fragment lodged in its chest, saving 500 Allied soldiers. As recently as the War of Independence in Palestine/Israel, the Israeli forces successfully used pigeons to deliver messages when all other means of communication were cut off.

Pigeon Fancy


Throughout their domestication, pigeons have both been allowed to breed freely, and have been bred with hand-picked mates with the most desirable traits. During this selective breeding, pigeon fanciers noticed how manipulable many of the physical traits were in these birds. First recorded in the 16th century by the Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi, groups of pigeon bred specifically for their looks likely existed as far back as the Late Medieval period of Western Europe. Though many were enamored with the species, one of the greatest pleasure breeders was the 16th-century Mughal ruler, Akbar the Great. His flock of 10,000 pigeons moved with him wherever he went, and he spent many hours in his dovecotes, picking mates for young squabs, and escaping the pressures of ruling an empire.

During the Victorian era, “fancy pigeons” became the fascination of choice for many upper and middle-class hobbyists, and formal bird shows have been held nearly as long as formal dog shows. By the early 1900s, pigeons were popular pets even among the working classes—and they got into more than just the feral squabs that lived on their rooftops and windowsills. In London, one could buy a pair of the distinctive-looking Pouter pigeons for 10p, far cheaper than any other fancy breed of pet. Pigeons were a little luxury that almost anyone could enjoy.

Fancy pigeon breeding is still a major competitive circle, though not as wide a hobby outside of competition breeders. In the past year, major shows in the United States and UK have had over 30,000 pigeons shown. Some competitors will show over ten breeds in one competition, but most have their favorites, and many specialize in just one breed.

The Sport of Kings and Stars

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In addition to the fancy pigeon world, the homing pigeon scene is alive and well, too. While Europe and the Americas have had pigeon sport clubs for over 200 years, and formal races for at least 150, the biggest market for pigeon sport these days is, by far, China. The past 20 years have seen a massive boom in the “young money” of China, and the self-made billionaire crowd has its sport of choice: pigeon racing. Kits (flocks) of the best racers can be valued at over $100 million, with champion individuals selling for up to $330,000.

Though the world of elite pigeon racing is prohibitively expensive for most, it’s possible to set up a small dovecote (pigeon housing) and raise novice racers or fancies for under $250 in most places. Despite its small initial outset, the rich and famous don’t shy away from pigeons. The most visibly enthusiastic pigeon fancier these days is Mike Tyson, who has bred pigeons since boyhood. He’s in the company of Nikola Tesla, who far preferred his pigeons to humans; Yul Brynner, who would watch his racing flocks by helicopter; Queen Victoria, who had a particular affinity for Jacobins; and Pablo Picasso, who so loved his fantails that he named his daughter “Paloma,” meaning pigeon in Spanish.

And, of course, the inimitable Charles Darwin, who may not have fancied pigeons, but who bred them and cared for them with as much zeal for type and color as any lover of the breeds—and whose proof-of-concept specimens were the final building block in his manuscript, On the Origin of Species.

Additional Sources: Pigeons: the fascinating saga of the world's most revered and reviled birdThe Feather’s practical pigeon bookThe Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]