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7 Tough Facts About Tardigrades

Tardigrades are tough, tubby, and tiny. There are more than 1000 species, and all of them are itty-bitty—about the size of a grain of sand. 

1. ALL OF THEIR NAMES ARE CUTE.

Tardigrades are also known as “water bears” and “moss piglets” for the endearing way they trundle across their chosen habitats. Even the word tardigrade means “slow-moving.” 

2. THEY’RE OLD.

“Old” doesn’t really begin to cover it. Scientists estimate that tardigrades have been around for 600 million years. To put that in perspective: Dinosaurs first appeared about 230 million years ago, which makes T. rex and friends the new kids on the block. 

3. THEY CAN LIVE PRETTY MUCH ANYWHERE.

And we do mean anywhere. True to their nicknames, most tardigrades prefer living in the water or on damp places on land in the world’s temperate zones. Dirt, leaf litter, and patches of moss are favorite hangouts. But those are just the tardigrade’s preferred habitat; these tiny animals could easily live in the fires of Mount Doom if they had to. They may be little, but they’re darn near unkillable.

Moss piglet under a microscope. Image Credit: Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill.

4. THEY’VE GOT A SUPERPOWER.

What makes tardigrades so tough? One word: cryptobiosis. Translated literally, cryptobiosis means “hidden life,” and that’s exactly what it is: a form of suspended animation in which organisms can go on living even as they look dead. Cryptobiosis is the secret to Sea Monkeys; it’s also the reason tardigrades can survive pretty much anything. So when times get tough, tardigrades play dead. They hunch up into little dried husks and more or less shut down, which drops their metabolisms to 0.01 percent of their usual rate. In this deathlike state, the tardigrade becomes nearly untouchable. 

5. THEY DON’T FUSS WITH THE THERMOSTAT.

Tardigrades can withstand temperatures that would easily fry or freeze a human being. Scientists have exposed them to heat over 300°F and cold below 1° Kelvin, or -458°F—a temperature at which most substances go bananas. Liquids turn to solids and gases turn to liquids, but the hardy tardigrade just keeps on truckin’.

6. THEY CAN LIVE IN SPACE. LIKE, OUTSIDE.

Without the aid of a pressurized suit, humans can survive just a few minutes in the vacuum of space. Tardigrades can make it for 10 days. But the hazards of space go beyond mere skull-crushing pressure; there’s also UV radiation. Humans can withstand about 500 roentgens, or units, of ionizing radiation, but it takes more than 100 times that much to kill a tardigrade. 

7. YOU CAN GET YOUR OWN.

If, after reading all these facts, you find yourself helplessly charmed by the tardigrade, don’t fear: You can buy one. A stuffed one, anyway. But that’s probably for the best; a real pet tardigrade might make you feel inadequate.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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