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The Beetle That Doubles as a Mass Transit System

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In the tropical forests of Central and South America, a fantastic looking beetle begins its life in the drabbest of places. The harlequin beetle (Acrocinus longimanus) is named for the eye-catching splashes of black and red (or yellow) that cover its forewings. While seemingly conspicuous (some of the patterns look like something Guy Fieri would have on a bowling shirt), the designs actually help the beetles blend in with the mottled trunks and branches of trees, and it’s in the dull brown wood of fallen, decaying tree limbs that a mother harlequin beetle lays her eggs. She gnaws into the bark and deposits her eggs, usually in a batch of 15 to 20. The larvae dig deeper into the wood when they hatch, and again when they’re ready to pupate. Then they spend the next few months developing and growing into their adult form. 

Meanwhile, on those same rotting branches, the pseudoscorpion Cordylochernes scorpioides scuttles about eating small insects. Lacking the tails and poisonous stingers of their namesake, the true scorpions, these little teardrop-shaped arachnids instead take down their prey with venom secreted through their pinching claws. When a branch becomes too decayed to make a good home, or there are too many pseudoscorpions and not enough food to go around, some of these guys will have to find another dead limb to live on. But they’re tiny (often just a few millimeters long) and wingless, and the next branch might be far away. How do they get from Point A to Point B?

The answer is right underneath them. When the the fully-grown harlequin beetles chew their way back out from the branches, one of their first orders of business is to find a branch to eat bark and fungus from. Since both species are looking for the same thing, the pseudoscorpions hitch a ride on the beetles. 

After a beetle bores its way out of the wood, pseudoscorpions swarm around it and pinch its belly with their claws. Annoyed at the less than warm welcome to the outside world, the beetle flexes its abdomen and flicks its forewings, exposing its back and giving the pseudoscorpions space to climb aboard. 

As they shuffle onto the beetle, the male pseudoscorpions will make room for females, but shove each other around as they jockey for the best spots and try to keep other males from climbing on. When the beetle takes off, the pseudoscorpions secure themselves with “safety harnesses” they fashion from silk from their claws, and the males that managed to stay on the beetle compete for the attention of the female passengers and mate with them. The females usually disembark at the next branch, but the males may stay on the beetle if new females climb on and use the bug as a mobile love shack for a few days.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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