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Flickr user AnneLeroy

Why the Inside of a Camel's Mouth Looks Like a Sarlacc Pit

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Flickr user AnneLeroy

If you can get over the whole spitting thing, camels are pretty cute—at least until they open up their mouths. It's like staring into the Sarlacc pit from Return of the Jedi. What are those little fleshy things? What purpose do they serve? What is going on here?

The things in the camel's mouth are oral papillae, and they're totally normal, says Luis Padilla, Director of Animal Health at the St. Louis Zoo. "Papillae are projections or raised structures found in different parts of the mouth, internal cheeks, and tongues of some species," he says. "There are many kinds of papillae. Most have simply a mechanical function, but some have a sensory function, either positional sensation or they may have taste buds on them. In ruminants, the ones on the cheek and esophagus can be extremely large, as what you see in the picture." 

When the papillae's function is purely mechanical, Padilla says, they're usually cone- or triangular-shaped, and work in conjunction with the tongue and the muscles of the mouth to help manipulate food in one direction, typically toward the stomach (which means that a camel's mouth has more in common with the Sarlacc pit than just looks!). Camels need those big papillae because of what they're eating. "Swallowing chewed leaves and sticks without some sort of mechanical assistance can be hard," Padilla says. "The papillae are sort of firm—they can be partially keratinized—and can feel almost like plastic. In the areas where they are keratinized, the papillae protect the cheek and mouth from getting scratched, abraded, poked, perforated, or injured." Though all camelids have papillae, size and shape can vary, and they can be affected by the animals' health, according to Padilla. "Blunting of the papillae or ulcerated papillae are signs of certain disease conditions," he says.

Many different kinds of animals have papillae, including humans. "There are lots of tiny papillae in the human mouth, especially on the tongue," Padilla says. "Humans and most primates do not have papillae as big as camels’ or other ruminants’. Because of our masticatory adaptations and diet, we don’t really need them to keep food flowing in one direction on the lining of our cheek or esophagus." (Also important to note: "Taste buds sit on top of a specialized kind of papilla," Padilla says, "but not all papillae are taste buds.")

But look inside the mouths of many fish-eating birds, reptiles, and fish, and you'll find varying types of papillae. "There are actually about 10 to 15 types of papillae based on their shape, location, and function," Padilla says. "These papillae are so large and elaborate in some species—like penguins or sea turtles—that once you put something in their throat, it can be sort of difficult to pull it back." And they're not just found in the mouth; Padilla says papillae can be found in some other parts of the gastrointestinal system, including the stomach, esophagus, and rumen of certain species; depending on the animal, and the location of the papillae, proportions and firmness vary. Sea turtles, for example, have pretty soft papillae.

Back to camels, though—there's one more thing Padilla wants to point out about that mouth. "In some of the photos [on the Internet], you see the really impressive canine teeth of some male camels," he says. "These can be pretty dangerous."

Photo courtesy of Flickr user AnneLeroy; used with permission.

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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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