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© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society

The Curious Case of the Flying Communist Bears

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© Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society

There was something off about some of the bears. They didn’t belong there. 

Researchers had gone to Bulgaria to study one of the last large populations of brown bears in Europe. While it’s nearly extinct in Western Europe, the species hangs on in the east, but biologists didn’t know much about how many there were, where they lived, or how the bears were all connected. To learn more about them, the team, led by Carsten Nowak, a wildlife geneticist at the Germany’s Senckenberg Research Institute, collected hair, scat, and tissue samples, and analyzed them.

While going through the animals’ DNA profiles, Nowak’s PhD student Christiane Frosch found something odd. Some of the bears didn’t fit. Their DNA profiles were unlike any of the others, suggesting they didn’t belong to the Bulgarian populations and that they’d come from somewhere else. 

When the scientists compared the strange bears’ DNA to another population in Romania, they found a match. The bears had family ties to ones living in the Carpathian Mountains, some 600 miles away. 

While bears will sometimes wander far from where they were born to find new territory, it didn’t seem likely that these foreigners had migrated from the Carpathians. They were all found far from the only potential travel route that could have gotten them there, with plenty of barriers in between. The foreign animals also were mostly females, which aren’t known to stray far from their home range. The genetic differences between the two populations didn’t suggest a lot of interbreeding, either. 

So how did they get there? Nowak thinks it’s the work of a trigger-happy dictator. 

Nicolae Ceausescu was the communist ruler of Romania from 1967 to 1989. During his reign, he enjoyed hunting, or, as David Quammen put it, “the sort of travesty of hunting that only a despot can experience and only a delusional egotist would enjoy.”

Ceausescu shot bears like they were fish in a barrel. He would travel by helicopter and jeep to one of the many hunting areas he had set aside for his personal use. There he would find a comfortable hunting blind overlooking a feeding trough that had been arranged by forest managers ahead of time. If it was taking too long for a bear to wander over to the bait (his attention span during a hunt often only lasted a few minutes), forest department employees would move through the woods and drive the animals towards him. If he missed his shot, his lackeys would find, kill, and deliver another animal so the president could still have his trophy. Once, after missing two shots, he commanded that fences be erected near the blind to channel the animals towards him and make them easier targets. Afterwards, taxidermists would stretch the bears’ pelts to artificially increase their size and Ceausescu’s trophy score.

Over his lifetime, Ceausescu shot anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand bears, depending on whose estimate you go by. He loved shooting the animals so much that he sometimes used them as a strange form of diplomacy. Bulgaria’s communist leader, Todor Zhikov, was also an avid hunter, but Bulgarian bears were disappointingly small compared to Romanian ones. To maintain good relations, Ceausescu would occasionally pack a few big bears from the Carpathians into a military plane and send them to Bulgaria as a gift for Zhikov. 

While there’s no surviving documentation of these flying bears, forest managers and game wardens in both countries told Nowak’s team that they did happen. They also pointed them to some of the enclosures (top) that the bears were delivered to in Bulgaria, a few of which still exist and still house bears (the researchers weren’t allowed access to these to take samples from the bears). Indeed, the majority of the “alien” bears were found within a few miles of these delivery sites. The bears’ proximity to the enclosures and the evidence against natural migration, the researchers say, provide some of the first hard evidence confirming what’s long been regarded as just a Cold War-era legend. 

Bulgaria isn’t the only place that Ceausescu sent his furry gifts, either, foresters told Nowak. The dictator supposedly tried to firm up his friendship with Sweden the same way, but the bear-bearing plane was turned away at the airport. 

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]