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7 Strange Things Swallowed by Whales

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Wikimedia Commons

Some whales are adventuresome eaters. Killer whales, for example, occasionally supplement their normal diets of fish with more unusual fare (more on that below). But other kinds of whales, particularly the baleen variety, end up with an exotic array of objects in their guts, too, because they feed by indiscriminately sucking up huge amounts of water and filtering out the shrimp, plankton, and small fish. Below are seven strange things found in the stomachs and guts of whales—some inanimate, some living, some amusing, and some just sad.

1. A Golf ball

Image courtesy of Lotus Head, used under Creative Commons license. 

A 1994 episode of Seinfeld touched on golf ball-consuming sea mammals. But in 2008, when a golf ball was discovered in the bowels of a beached gray whale in Washington, there was nothing George Constanza or an actual marine biologist could do. On TV, the problematic golf ball was lodged in the whale’s blowhole—“hole in one,” as Kramer says. But in real life, the golf ball was found amongst the whale’s innards. The whale was dead on arrival; scientists don't believe the digested golf ball was related to the mammal's passing.

2. Sweatpants

Image courtesy of Punkt 8, used under Creative Commons license. 

When they're not up for real attire, people often opt for sweatpants. And when the same people are too lazy to properly throw out the trash, garbage—like unwanted sweatpants—ends up in the ocean getting swallowed by whales. The same whale that swallowed a golf ball not far from Seattle was also found with sweatpants in its paunch.

3. Polar Bears

Image courtesy of Alan Wilson, used under Creative Commons license. 

Typically, killer whales subsist on diets of fish; some even dine on baleen whales, penguins, and smaller marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and otters. Sometimes, though, the whales are found with digested pieces of polar bears, moose, reptiles, and many other animals in their guts.

4. Endangered species

Photo courtesy of PMXused under Creative Commons license. 

Critically endangered European eels spend most of their lives in freshwater. But when they fully mature and become sexually aroused, they return to the warm ocean waters of the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic to spawn and then die. Unfortunately, not all of them make it to that final moment of coital bliss. Some are gobbled up by several different species of toothed whales in the eastern Atlantic.

5. Greenhouse sheeting

Image courtesy of Quistnixused under Creative Commons license. 

Giant greenhouses in Almeria, Grenada, and even Iceland are responsible for growing the tomatoes that stock the produce aisles of the world’s major supermarkets. They’re also responsible for the tons and tons of plastic sheeting increasingly found mangled inside the stomachs of beached whales. When the plastic sheets used to trap the heat of the sun and help nourish vegetables aren’t thrown away properly, they inevitably end up in the waters surrounding Europe, and eventually inside gray whales.

6. Cigarette butts

Image courtesy of Silly Putty Enemies, used under Creative Commons license. 

Loads of cellulose acetate filters, or cigarette butts, have been found in the stomachs of beached whales.

7. More trash

Image courtesy of Bengt Nyman, used under Creative Commons license. 

A gray whale recently found deceased on the beach of a small island off the coast of the Netherlands had dozens of plastic bags, nine meters of rope, two long pieces of garden hose, a couple of flower pots, and a plastic spray canister in its stomach. It's an increasingly common occurrence: whales stuffed full of human garbage.

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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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