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Wikimedia Commons

Birds Steer Clear of Invisible Roads

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Wikimedia Commons

Forget about whether the chicken crossed the road or not. The question for some scientists is why other birds won’t even come near a roadway. 

Wherever wildlife and automobile traffic meet, it’s usually bad news for the animals. More than just making roadkill, roads use up land, create noise and pollution, and act as barriers that cut animals off from resources, mates, and territory. Because of all these problems, bird populations tend to decline sharply within a kilometer of a road or other human infrastructure, and mammals begin declining within five kilometers. 

You’re within about a kilometer away from a road in more than 80 percent of the USA. That’s a whole lot of country covered in things that bug birds. But what bothers them most? The trash? Close calls with windshields? A lot of research has suggested that it's the level of noise around a busy roadway, but most of these studies have been done along actual roads. When all the potential bird-deterring effects are there at the same time, it’s hard to pin down the strength of any single one. 

To isolate the noise factor and see how much it matters to birds, biologists from Boise State University in Idaho wanted a way to create traffic noise without actual traffic. They decided to hide speakers in the trees of a southern Idaho forest that migrating birds use as a rest stop. When they piped recordings of traffic sounds through the speakers, they had a half-kilometer-long “phantom road” that wouldn’t bother the birds any way but through their ears. 

The Road Not Taken

Alternating between four days of noise and four days of quiet throughout the fall migration season, the researchers recorded visits of more than 8000 individual birds from 59 species to their phantom road and a noise-less control site. Whenever they turned the speakers on, the total bird abundance at the phantom road declined by more than a quarter. Some species avoided the area in even greater proportions, and a few, like the cedar waxwing, avoided it almost entirely.

Scaring away that many birds with only traffic noise is a startling demonstration of how man-made noise can alter the way animals use space. Because of the sheer amount of land that roads cover in the U.S., particularly noise-sensitive species like the waxwings and yellow warblers are pushed away from a whole lot of otherwise useable habitat because it’s too loud for them. 

Even within national parks and other protected areas, the researchers say, roads can produce noise levels similar to their phantom road, and man-made noise needs to be taken into account when preserving and managing land and wildlife. The next step is figuring out why noise is such a big deterrent for birds. It could be that noise masks birds’ songs and calls and keeps them from finding or communicating with one another. Other scientists have found that birds with high-frequency songs aren’t as bothered by roads and certain industrial sites because these low-frequency noises don’t drown out their songs as much as they do some other species. 

Road noise might also turn birds away because it keeps them from hearing predators. Some birds, like chaffinches, and other animals are more vigilant in noisy areas so other animals don’t get the drop on them, often at the expense of eating or other normal behaviors. If more noise means less eating, then roads are especially lousy places to be when a bird is migrating and needs fuel to keep going. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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