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11 Active Facts About the Australian Shepherd

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With its unusual markings and piercing blue eyes, it's hard to ignore an Australian shepherd when it prances by you on the street. Learn more about the fluffy dog and its surprising background.


The history of the Australian shepherd is borderline mythical, but one thing is for sure: These dogs do not hail from Australia. It’s widely accepted that these dogs most likely have roots in the Basque region of the Pyrenees Mountains. The little countryside is only about 191 square miles, meaning there wasn’t a lot of work for the local herders and their dogs. According to one version of the tale, these herders came to the United States for work in the late 1800s. Some say they made a pit stop in Australia, while others think the name comes the breed’s affiliation with Basque shepherds that came from Australia. Still, their Basque shepherds bear very little resemblance to the Australian shepherds we know today. 


Their origins may be hazy, but the breed was perfected here in the U.S. Herders from countries all around the world made their way to the West Coast with their dogs, leading to a lot of interbreeding. Stockmen would breed these work dogs to be alert, intelligent, agile, and adaptable to different terrains. Little thought went into beauty or standard. The Scotch collie, Border collie, and English shepherd are all believed to have contributed to the Australian shepherd bloodline. Another likely culprit is the Australian koolie, a dog with remarkably similar features to the Australian shepherd, such as a merle coat and bright blue eyes. 


Australian shepherds enjoyed a huge boom of popularity after World War I. As waves of people headed out West, the energetic dogs found more work outside of just herding sheep. Intelligent and easily trained, the dogs were perfect for the rodeo. One particularly popular dog show was the Jay Sisler show. He and his team of trained dogs were featured in the Disney movies Run, Appaloosa, Run and Stub: The Greatest Cowdog in the West. People all over the country were enthralled with the talented pooches—Stubby, Shorty, and Queenie—as they jumped rope, ran through barrels, and performed tricks. 


When people think of Aussies, they normally think of their crystal blue eyes. In fact, some Native American tribes called the breed the ghost eye dog, because of their phantom-like peepers. They were said to be considered sacred and were often avoided


Not all Australian shepherds have blue eyes: they can also be green, amber, hazel or brown, or two different colors. Sometimes, the dogs will have marbled eyes, meaning each of their eyes will be a mix of two or more colors. 


Of the four registered colors of Aussies, the blue merle is the most recognizable. Breeders attempted to breed the other colors out of the dog, but found that dogs with the double merle gene faced a lot of health problems like blindness. Today, you can find Aussies in many different colors, although only black, red, red merle, and blue merle are accepted by the American Kennel Club.


When you’re doing hard work like herding, long ears and tails can get in the way. To avoid injury, many workers would dock their dogs’ ears and tails. The tail was somewhat bred out of this breed, as one in five Aussies are born with a naturally bobbed tail. Show dogs are expected to have either docked or naturally docked tails. 


Thanks to their working dog background, Aussies are well-equipped for a number of different jobs. Besides herding and performing tricks, the canines also make great search and rescue dogs, as well as therapy dogs. 


Aussies are very loving companions, but they need to stay active. Without proper stimulation, they may grow bored and restless. Left alone, their natural instincts might kick in, leading to them to start herding other things in your house. (Watch out for your children getting bunched in an orderly herd and pushed into a fenced area.)   


According to the AKC, this unique dog is the 18th most popular breed in the United States. That puts them ahead of Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, and Cavalier King Charles spaniels.


In the '70s, Australian Shepherd Hyper Hank and his owner Eldon McIntire found a lot of fame for their expert Frisbee routine. The talented disc duo won contests across the country, performed at the pre-show of Super Bowl XII, and even spent some time with the Carters at the White House. As his name suggests, the fluffy dog had a lot of energy.

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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.