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Wikimedia Commons

Darwin's Beetle, Lost and Found

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Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin had kind of a thing for beetles, and would go to great lengths to collect and study them. In 1846, he wrote to a friend about one of the entomological adventures he had looking for ground beetles: 

Under a piece of bark I found two Carabi & caught one in each hand, when lo and behold I saw a sacred Panagæus crux major; I could not bear to give up either of my Carabi, & to lose Panagæus was out of the question, so that in despair I gently seized one of the carabi between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust & pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat & I lost both Carabi & Panagæus! 

During his famous voyage on the Beagle in the 1830s, Darwin collected fossils and living animals for his research wherever he could, including plenty of beetles. Among them was a type of rove beetle—a member of Staphylinidae, the largest beetle family—that was unknown to science.  

Unfortunately, before Darwin—who apparently could not bear to lose a beetle—or any other biologist could formally describe the new beetle and name it, the specimen was misplaced somewhere in the collections of the Natural History Museum in London. 

Skip ahead almost 200 years, to the present day. Stylianos Chatzimanolis, an entomologist at the University of Tennessee, has been working over the last few years to update the family tree of a sub-group of rove beetles. He’s spent many hours in his lab examining specimens borrowed from all over the world and working on manuscripts (while listening to David Sedaris audiobooks). One day, he noticed that one of the beetles had notched antennae, a trait that’s not common among rove beetles. Intrigued, he looked into it a little more and discovered that the strange beetle was on loan from the Natural History Museum, and was the lost beetle collected by Darwin in Argentina.

The beetle was recorded as specimen number 708 by Darwin in his notes, and then stored at the museum among unsorted Staphylinidae specimens, presumably because no one knew what it was or where it belonged. Eventually one of the curators noticed it while sorting these materials and, taking a best guess, moved it to storage with the genus Trigonopselaphus, to which it bore a resemblance. This happened to be the same genus that Chatzimanolis was researching, and when the museum sent over its Trigonopselaphus collections, specimen 708 made a second trip over the Atlantic, this time to be rediscovered instead of lost. 

After examining the beetle more closely, Chatzimanolis decided that it wasn’t a member of Trigonopselaphus, but a new genus. He dubbed the group Darwinilus in honor of Darwin, and named specimen 708’s species D. sedarisi as a nod to the writer who entertained him while he worked. He published his description of the beetle on Darwin’s 205th birthday, February 12, 2014. 

Despite searching in many major museum collections, Chatzimanolis has only been able to find one other specimen of Darwinilus sedarisi, which dates from 1935 or before. Chatzimanolis thinks the lack of specimens may be because the beetles spend most of their time hiding and feeding in the trash piles of ant colonies. Most of the area around the spots where the two beetles were found, though, has since been deforested and turned into farmland, so it's also possible the beetles disappeared for lack of a place to live. “One of course hopes that a newly described species is not already extinct,” says Chatzimanolis.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

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]

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