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Meet the Owl that Fishes with Feces

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Back in the early 2000s, ornithologist Doug Levey was teaching a course at the University of Florida when he had a weird idea about poop. 

He and some of his students were on a field trip observing burrowing owls—a tiny, long-legged species that makes its home in underground burrows. If you’ve seen photos of burrowing owls, you know they’re pretty cute. If you’ve seen them in the wild, you know they’re also pretty weird. Unlike most of their cousins, burrowing owls are active during the daytime, and spend most of their day standing around the entrances of their burrows doing what seems to be a whole lot of nothing. 

All of this standing around is done amid piles of dung, which the owls collect and arrange around their homes like bizarre lawn decorations. Cow dung. Horse dung. Dung from dogs, cats, antelope—you name it. If an animal shares territory with burrowing owls and poops, chances are the owls will take it home; they don’t seem to be picky about whose feces they’re collecting. But what do they do with all of it?

One of Levey’s students pointed out that there were lots of dung beetle parts scattered throughout the owls’ pellets, the masses of undigested food that some birds regurgitate. Levey quickly put two and two together. If you want to catch a dung beetle, he figured, you’d leave some dung out. Maybe the owls were using the poo piles as bait to lure in their prey. 

To test the idea, Levey and his beetle-spotting student Scot Duncan cleared all the burrows of two different owl populations of their dung, pellets, and beetle pieces. Then they went back and scattered cow dung around half of them and left the other half alone. A few days later, they collected the regurgitated pellets and prey remains from all the burrows and kept them for analysis. Then they repeated the experiment, this time switching the burrows that got fresh dung and those that didn’t get any. 

They found that the owls who had dung at their burrows ate much better than their dung-less neighbors; their pellets suggested that they consumed ten times as many beetles and six times as many different beetle species. 

While it might look like the owls are standing around doing nothing, they’re really fishing for beetles with some unconventional bait. 

It’s a fascinating bit of tool use, but no one can tell if the owls are consciously collecting the dung as bait, acting on instinct, or even bringing the dung home for another reason (like masking the odor of their eggs or chicks) and simply enjoying the beetle-luring effect as a bonus. 

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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]