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10 Spiky Facts About Stegosaurus

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Poor Stegosaurus. Thanks its relative brain size, the Jurassic herbivore—while popular—has been slapped with prehistoric punchlines for over a century. Today, we’re saluting one of earth’s most misunderstood dinosaurs.

1. Stegosaurus’ Name is a Giant Anachronism.

Meaning “roof lizard,” it references the outdated idea that Stegosaurus’ characteristic back plates were arranged horizontally like enormous shingles. We now know these weird-looking bones stood upright, though what they were actually used for remains an open question.

2. No, Stegosaurus Didn’t Have a Second Brain Above its Butt. That Myth Needs to Go Extinct.

To be fair, the spinal columns of certain dinos—such as Stegosaurus—do have sizable cavities around their fannies. During the late 1800s, some briefly speculated that a ‘posterior braincase’ was housed there; after all, since Stegosaurus’ cranium wasn’t exactly plus-sized, backup grey matter seemed like a helpful feature.

Amusing as that notion is, there isn’t a shred of decent evidence to support it (for instance, no modern animals have one). Sadly, however, this two-brained dinosaur rumor persists.

3. Stegosaurus Did, However, Boast Pebbly Throat Armor.

Nobu Tamura

Circular lumps arranged on the neck’s underside would’ve assisted Stegosaurus in shielding its jugular from hungry predators.

4. It’s Also the State Fossil of Colorado.

Despite this, the Colorado Rockies’ current mascot is a purple Triceratops named "Dinger." At least with Stegosaurus, they could’ve thrown in some cheesy home "plate" puns. What a missed opportunity…

5. An Unlucky Allosaurus (Probably) Met the Business End of One.

Wikimedia Commons

Wanna hear something scary? A noticeable percentage of known Stegosaurus tail spikes have broken and re-healed tips, indicating that, in life, their owners put them to good use. Furthermore, one famous Allosaurus vertebrae includes an unusual hole which was apparently made when the carnivore tangled with a feisty Stegosaurus and its well-armed hind end.

6. Stegosaurus Would’ve Had an Interesting Gait.

Because its front legs were significantly shorter than the rear ones, Stegosaurus was hardly speedy or agile. Realizing this, the animators of 1999’s Walking with Dinosaurs series gave the creature a frontal swagger to accommodate this difference in limb length.

7. It Wasn’t Much of a Biter.

Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, using skull dimensions and tooth analyses, paleontologist Miriam Reichel found that Stegosaurus’ chompers didn’t exert much force, though being able to snip through “smaller branches” was still on their resume. 

8. In 1920, Stegosaurus was Reimagined as a Dinosaurian Hang-Glider.

Beneath one of the freakiest dinosaur drawings ever conceived, journalist W.H. Ballou wrote that—by "flapping" its plates—Stegosaurus could “[coast] through the air like some gigantic gliding machine” in an article submitted to the Standard-Examiner of Ogden, Utah.

9. Stegosaurus May Have Inhabited Portugal.

Although it was first found in the U.S. (and is usually seen as a quintessentially American dino), fragmentary remains unearthed across the pond strongly imply that Stegosaurus also roamed Portuguese terrain 150 million years ago.

10. It Has an Odd Connection to Gary Larson’s The Far Side.

In one of The Far Side’s classic 1982 strips, a Neanderthal is seen pointing to a Stegosaurus tail, remarking “Now this end we call the thagomizer… after the late Thag Simmonds.” Since then, many paleontologists have been using the term "thagomizer" to denote real-life stegosaur tails.

“I think there should be cartoon confessionals,” Larson himself later opined, “where we could go and say things like, ‘Father, I have sinned—I have drawn dinosaurs and hominids together in the same cartoon.’”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.