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Source: iStock

5 Great Snoots of the Animal Kingdom

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Source: iStock
Image Credit: iStock

A nose isn't just a house on the face for the nostrils. Some of nature's most notable beaks can regulate heating and cooling, filter particles, act like fingers, or woo the ladies. These five great animal schnozzes, snoots, and suckers do a lot more than sniff.

1. Saiga (Saiga tataricus)

Saiga antelopes live on the unforgiving plains of Russia and Kazakhstan, where winters see subzero temperatures and summers are dry and desolate. Hang on, you're about to get jealous: the saiga's magnificent snoot is also a personal HVAC system. During hot, dusty summer migrations, the saiga's Gonzo-esque snout acts as an air filter and may even serve as an air conditioner, cooling down its owner’s blood. In the punishing depths of winter, it's a cozy little heater, warming up outside air before it hits the saiga’s lungs.

2. Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)

Hillbraith, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

This handsome specimen is a star-nosed mole, and those fleshy little things on the front of its face are tentacles. Like most moles, C. cristata has terrible eyesight and spends much of its time underground or underwater. It digs straight ahead with its powerful claws, feeling around with its retractable tentacles. The mole's starry snoot-fingers are super fast, touching up to 12 objects each second and moving so quickly that they look like a creepy pink blur to the naked eye.

They're also super sensitive, and a mole can identify and stuff prey in its mouth within half a second. If that's not enough, scientists think the tentacles might also be able to pick up on faint electrical signals from aquatic prey. That would be useful, because star-nosed moles are also the only mammals that can smell underwater. They do this by blowing bubbles, then snorting the scent-filled bubbles back up their snoots.

3. Darwin's Hawk Moth (Xanthopan morganii praedicta)

Behold one of the most legendary snoots in scientific history: the hawk moth. Three years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin turned his attention to orchids. He was fascinated by their diversity and the remarkable ways they've adapted to make themselves sexy to insects. To help him in his studies, fellow naturalist Robert Bateman mailed Darwin a package of orchid specimens, including Angraecum sesquipedale, which boasts an impressive foot-long nectary. Darwin was boggled. "Good Heavens," he wrote to a friend. "What insect can suck it?"

A few days later, he'd come up with an answer. There had to be a moth, he figured, with a foot-long proboscis. He wasn't exactly laughed out of the academy, but it did sound pretty stupid. But, as it turned out, Darwin was right—although he'd never know. Twenty years after his death, scientists found the Madagascan hawk moth Xanthopan morganii praedicta, complete with super-sized snoot.

4. Proboscis Monkey (Nasalis larvatus)

Source: iStock

Once again, sexual selection is the name of the game: Proboscis monkey chicks dig a male with a big, bulbous honker. But the male's massive schnozz isn’t just for looks; scientists believe that it also works as an amplifier, making sure everybody can hear him.

You really can’t miss a male proboscis monkey. Even if he isn't yelling, you can’t overlook a 50-pound monkey with a big nose, webbed feet, a bright red penis, and a black scrotum. These guys don’t do subtle.

The very same obnoxious visibility that makes male proboscis monkeys so successful also makes them a target. Populations have plummeted in recent years, partly due to habitat loss, but also from hunting. These monkeys are lazy and easy to catch, which makes them a popular meal among local people. They also produce bezoars (gut-stones), which are sold as medicine in China.

5. Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata)

Most seals are social, family-oriented animals who keep their face-parts to themselves. Not the hooded seal. With adult males averaging about 8 feet long and 660 pounds, this beast is enormous, territorial, and mean. Fights over females and feeding grounds involve biting, punching, bellowing, and waving around the football-sized pink balloons they keep in their noses.

These nasal sacs serve a number of unlikely purposes. When challenged, a male will inflate his balloon and shake it all over the place. To other males, this is apparently intimidating; to females, it’s hot as hell. This means that the males with the most magnificent nose-balloons get to mate and start a new generation of magnificent balloon-snooting babies. Nature is amazing.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]