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12 Awesome Spider Facts

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Ask most people their opinion of spiders, and they’ll tell you that the arachnids are super creepy. And that might be kinda true, but the fact of the matter is, we need them as much as we need bees: Spiders are the dominant non-vertebrate predators in most exosystems, and without them, insect numbers would skyrocket. Human populations would also be much smaller—or even nonexistent—because the bugs would devour our crops, according to Norman Platnick, Curator Emeritus of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, and curator of Spiders Alive!, which opens tomorrow at the museum.

“It is a fact of reality that some of our visitors are likely to arrive with some fear of spiders, and I can understand that, to an extent,” he says. “I personally am afraid of snakes. But I regard that as a rational fear—about half of the snakes on this planet can actually hurt you. Being afraid of spiders is not rational in that sense. And so we hope to show why such arachnophobia is basically irrational, and that spiders are actually handsome, fascinating creatures that are extremely beneficial to humans.”

Platnick also hopes that visitors to the exhibition will come away with the knowledge that the study of spider diversity is an active field, with much to still be discovered. “Arachnologists have identified almost 45,000 different kinds of spiders at this point,” he says, “[but] that probably represents, at most, about half of the actual diversity of the group, and the numbers are growing very very quickly.”

Spiders Alive! showcases 16 spider species (plus two scorpions and a vinegaroon!) and features live demonstrations and a model of a trap door spider that's 50 times life size—and you can climb on it! Here are a few things we learned from an early visit.

1. Brown recluse venom destroys human tissue, but it has very little effect on rats and mice. Rabbits, meanwhile, are super sensitive: They can develop a wound from as little as 15 micrograms of venom.

2. Spider fossils are hard to find because the animals’ exoskeletons are relatively soft. For every 1000 insect fossils discovered, there’s only one spider.

3. We think of spiders as solitary creatures, but some 20 species work together to survive—including the African funnel-web spider, which shares its web with hundreds of its brethren.

4. This trick is not for the arachnophobic: If you’re walking around at night and want to find any wolf spiders that might be around, use a flashlight—their eyes will reflect the light back at you, like a less cute cat.

5. Tarantulas get their common name from an illness that swept through Taranto, Italy, in medieval times; people thought the illness was caused by the bite of a large-but-harmless spider. To be cured, the afflicted would do a dance called “tarantella” until they were completely exhausted. That poor spider became so well-known that when people settled in the New World, they called any large, hairy spider they came across a tarantula.

Photo by Erin McCarthy

6. Many tarantulas in North and South America defend themselves by using their hind legs to kick off the urticating hairs on their abdomens. The hairs are sharp and irritating, and become embedded in a predator’s skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, hopefully giving the spider time to get away. How can you tell if a tarantula has been using its hairs? Look for a tell-tale bald spot on its abdomen.

7. Despite its name, the Goliath bird eater only rarely eats birds! Instead, this spider—one of the biggest in the world—more often dines on snakes, mice, and frogs.

8. Not all spiders build webs, but all spiders make silk; it emerges from flexible spinnerets, which can be lifted, lowered, and twisted and, in some cases, moved independently, allowing the spider to direct the flow of the silk without moving its whole body. Some use silk to protect their eggs, sail through the air, or get a mate; one species, Argyroneta aquatica, even uses it to survive underwater! The spider builds a dome-shaped web with its silk and stores air bubbles there that it has collected on trips to the surface. It can stay underwater for as long as a day before having to return to the surface.

9. We’ve used spider silk for some pretty incredible things: In the 1800s, travelers saw Solomon Islanders using fishnets made of the material, and in 1943, the U.S. Army used silk from the black widow spider to make crosshairs on sighting devices. More recently, scientists used spider silk as a scaffold for growing human skin cells.

10. Orb webs have three parts: the frame, or foundation, which is the first thing a spider builds; the radii, which come out from the center like the spokes of a bicycle and transmit vibrations from prey; and the catching spiral, the sticky part of the web, which can stretch without breaking, making it hard for insects to escape. Some spiders take their webs down often—even daily!

11. Charlotte A. Cavatica from Charlotte’s Web is named after a common orb weaver, Araneus cavaticus. White consulted an expert at AMNH for help when researching the book.

Photo by Erin McCarthy

12. With well over 1 million specimens, AMNH has the largest research collection of spiders in the world. Unlike insects, which are typically pinned, the arachnids are stored in alcohol so they don’t dry out, which would render the specimens useless.


Disturb one of these arachnids, and they'll shoot a foul smelling spray at you from their abdomens. Don't say we didn't warn you!

All photos courtesy of AMNH unless otherwise noted.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]