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10 Things You Might Not Know About Parasaurolophus

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Wikimedia Commons

Flashy frills. Clubbed tails. Teeth the size of bananas. With strange features like these, it’s tempting to think that dinosaurs must’ve inhabited some distant, alien world. But their planet was ours. They roamed our land, they breathed our air. And, as Parasaurolophus has shown us, our skies once boomed with the chorus of their voices. Here’s a quick guide to this elegant animal. 

1. Its Tubular Crest Was Built Like a Woodwind Instrument.

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There’s more to Parasaurolophus’ most noticeable feature than meets the eye. Inside, a labyrinth of hollow chambers merge directly into its nasal passages. Suspiciously similar-looking are the musical innards of European crumhorns—a fact that hasn’t been lost on paleontologists. Seventy-five million years ago, that crest likely acted as a resonating device and enabled its owner to produce deep, long-distance bellows during outward breaths.  

2. You Can Actually Listen to a Clip of What Parasaurolophus Might Have Sounded Like.

In the 1990s, a group of American paleontologists and computer scientists teamed up to revive the beast’s ancient roar. After scanning the nooks and crannies of a large skull, they managed to simulate the eerie noises that Parasaurolophus probably sent echoing across prehistoric valleys. As an added bonus, their recording makes for one heck of a ringtone! 

3. A Close Relative of Parasaurolophus Was Named After Hades’ Ferryman.

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Greek mythology tells of a boater named Charon, who would (for a small fee) safely row the recently-deceased across to the Underworld. When a beautiful dinosaur skeleton popped up near Asia’s mighty Amur River in 2000, it was named Charonosaurus in his honor.   

4. Scientists Once Thought Parasaurolophus’ Crest Was Actually A Primitive Snorkel.

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The first rule of snorkel-making is “don’t forget to poke an air hole in the top.” Though hollow, the creature’s nifty accessory lacks any external openings, so breathing through it underwater would have been impossible. Therefore—to the surprise of no one—this hypothesis went extinct.

5. We’ve Found Traces of Parasaurolophus Skin.

Fossilized impressions left by dino hides aren’t all that common, but a patch of pebbly scale prints has been discovered in conjunction with an Albertan Parasaurolophus skeleton.   

6. A Race of Highly-Evolved Parasaurolophus Were Used as Star Trek Antagonists.

Memory Alpha Wikia

In “Distant Origin”—a third-season episode of Star Trek: Voyager—our heroes encounter a group of humanoid aliens known as “Voths,” which descended from Parasaurolophus and fled to a far-off galaxy before the rest of earth’s dinosaurs died out.   

7. Parasaurolophus’ Voice Changed After Puberty.

Anyone above the age of 12 knows this feeling all too well. By comparing the inner ear and crest of an adult Parasaurolophus with those of a juvenile, scientists determined that younger animals were built to hear and emit higher-frequency cries. As in humans, their voices deepened with time.

8. Some of Parasaurolophus’ Cousins Had Equally-Flamboyant Headgear.

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For starters, there’s Russia’s gorgeous Olorotitan and the “hatchet-headed” Lambeosaurus lambei of western Canada.

9. The World’s Finest Parasaurolophus Skeleton Was Found by a Teenager.  

Before he’d even left for college, Kevin Terris had a major scientific discovery under his belt. On a clear day in 2009, the 17-year-old Utahan accompanied veteran paleontologist Andrew Farke on a fossil hunt. Something in the rock caught Terris’ eye—a baby Parasaurolophus skull with a skeleton attached! At present, this little dinosaur (nicknamed “Joe”) is the genus’ best-preserved specimen. “It’s a little embarrassing to walk by something like that,” said Farke, “but [Terris] was just in the right place at the right time, looking from the right angle.”  

10. Parasaurolophus has Become a Media Darling.

Smile you big, scaly thespian: The camera loves you! Having appeared in such movies as all three Jurassic Park films, the Land Before Time series, and Disney’s Dinosaur (2000), Parasaurolophus’ cinematic résumé is one that few prehistoric critters can match. It was even cast in the z-grade buddy cop comedy Theodore Rex (1995), which also featured Whoopi Goldberg fighting crime with a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus (just let that premise sink in, we’ll wait…).

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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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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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