CLOSE
Original image
Guérin Nicolas

8 Close, But Not Quite Cats

Original image
Guérin Nicolas

In the taxonomic nomenclature, which has changed a lot since I learned the system, there is a level wedged between order and family called either “suborder” or “superfamily.” The order of Carnivore has two suborders; Caniformia is one, which means “dog-like." It includes dogs, of course, but also bears, skunks, raccoons, seals, and walruses. The other is Feliformia, which mean “cat-like.” That includes the family Felidae, which is cats. But besides cats (and strangely, hyenas), Feliformia includes species you may not be familiar with.

1. Fossa

Photograph by Ran Kirlian.

The Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) lives in Madagascar. It is related to the mongoose, but looks more like a cat, and in fact has been compared to a small cougar. The largest carnivore in Madagascar, it eats lemurs and other small animals. As a female Fossa matures, she goes through a stage of “masculinization,” in which her genitals elongate and resemble a spiny penis. Fossas are considered a vulnerable species and are protected in reserves, but are still hunted and eaten in some communities. Because they are widespread and claim a large individual territory, it is hard to get meaningful numbers on their population. Some natives consider them vermin due to their tendency to prey on chickens and small livestock.

2. Falanouc

The Falanouc (Eupleres goudotii) also lives in Madagascar and belongs to the same family as the Fossa, but resembles a mongoose more than its cousin. Its teeth are different from most of its taxonomically close relatives because the Falanouc eats mainly insects and earthworms.

3. African Civet

There are over a dozen species of civet in Africa and Asia belonging to several genera. What they have in common is their anal musk glands, which they use to mark territory and attract mates. Civets look like cats with the elongated bodies of otters or weasels. The African Civet (Civettictis civetta) is the most common species and the one from which perfumers traditionally obtain musk -although more recently, the synthetic civetone is used instead. African Civets are found in the savannah, forests, and rainforests of Africa. They have masked face markings like a raccoon.

4. Mongoose

The name Mongoose refers to 29 different species in the family Herpestidae, which live in southern Europe, southern Asia, and in Africa. They are famous for their ability to fight snakes. The mongoose has receptors for acetylcholine that reject the neurotoxins in snake venom much like snakes themselves have. Therefore, they are immune to snake venom. Another distinctive trait is the mongoose’s horizontally-shaped pupils. Incidentally, when you encounter two or more of these animals, the plural is mongooses, but don’t laugh when someone uses mongeese.

5. Linsang

Photograph by Daderot.

There are four species of linsang, two in Africa, and two in Asia. The Asiatic Linsang (Prionodon) comes in two flavors: banded or spotted. That describes their body markings; both have long striped tails. The Banded linsang is the rarest of all the civets. It resembles a weasel or ferret, with a longer tail and more catlike teeth, and lives in the treetops of the rainforest. Not much is known about their lifestyles.

6. Binturong

Photograph by Flickr user Tim Strater.

The Binturong (Arctictis binturong), also called the bearcat, is found in Southeast Asia. It looks and moves like a small round bear, and is a distant relative to genets, palm civets, and the linsang. Despite belonging to the order Carnivora, the Binturong eats mostly fruit. They will also eat meat, eggs, fish, and insects when the opportunity arises. Binturongs spend most of their time in trees, which is made easier by their ankles, which can turn 180 degrees, and their prehensile tails, which can grip like a fifth limb.

7. Genet

The Genet (Genetta genetta) is often mistaken for a cat, although it is more closely related to the mongoose. The couple of dozen species range throughout Africa, and the Common Genet also lives in Europe. Genets are sometimes kept as house pets. Earlier this year, a camera trap caught a genet hitching a ride on a buffalo and a rhinoceros in South Africa. It was determined that it was the same genet, and it had made a habit of riding other animals on different occasions.

8. Meerkat

Photograph by Flickr user Joachim Huber.

Not all Feliformia are obscure. We all know meerkats (Suricata suricatta) for their charming habit of scanning the horizon for danger as if they were posing for the camera, and for a Disney character named Timon. Meerkats are mongooses of the family Herpestidae, of the genus Suricata. What sets them apart is their tendency to live in clans of 20 to 50 animals, and that habit of standing on their back feet in order to see across the African plain. Meerkats are social and loyal to the group, often babysitting and even nursing each other’s young.

These are just a few of the many species of Feliformia. Others include the hyena, aardwolf, and of course, all the members of the family Felidae, which are cats.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
© Nintendo
arrow
fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
Original image
© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES