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Where Swimming With Otters Brings Peace and Healing to Kids (and Adults)

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

For the fourth time in an hour, I reached into the back of my bathing suit and pulled out a small worn-down rock. The Asian small-clawed otter named Rocket who had deposited it there watched me, waiting, as I held out the rock to look at it. In a flash, the aptly named Rocket swam up and snatched it from my hand. This time he neatly deposited the rock down the front of my bathing suit. Almost immediately he decided he wanted it back, so he went after it, right down the front of my bathing suit, sparking a wave of giggles from me and the other swimmers.

The staff at Nurtured by Nature in Valley Center, California, told me it’s a sign of friendliness when the otters shove rocks into your swimsuit. They’ve developed a game based on the habit: When you get out of the pool, whoever has the most rocks hiding in their suit wins. My total in and out of water was about six. By this metric, I think I made a new otter best friend that day. Thanks, Rocket.

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Woman swimming underwater with an Otter
Nurtured by Nature

While swimming in a pool of otters is almost certainly the main attraction for many people visiting Nurtured by Nature, it’s far from the only exotic animal experience you can have there. A $300 excursion takes about three hours and gives you access to a wide range of animals to feed, pet, and play with, including kangaroos, sloths, armadillos, porcupines, lemurs, owls, serval cats, and more. The otter swim caps the event, when you stand in a pool with up to seven other people while several Asian small-clawed otters dive in and swim up to you. When they're not shoving rocks in your bathing suit, they're sharing their water toys with you.

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Two women playing with Otters
Nurtured by Nature

It may seem like a steep price tag, but it’s all for a good cause: Nurtured by Nature’s main goal is to offer animal programs for kids through the Make A Wish Foundation. The proceeds from the public excursions go toward ensuring those visits remain free. Wendy and Kevin Yates, the owners, host about two Make A Wish families each month, customizing the program completely to the child’s desires, within safety limits. According to Wendy Yates, Nurtured by Nature has helped grant about 45 wishes since 2013, fueled by the funds from about 1700 public visits a year.

Eleven-year-old Reagan McBride from Alabama was one of those 45. Reagan has osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, and is paralyzed from the neck down as a result, with limited mobility in her arms.

“She’s had fractures since before she was born,” Jeri Ann McBride, Reagan’s mother, tells mental_floss. “But she can still elbow punch her brother.”

When Reagan and her family came to Nurtured by Nature in 2015, it was because of a wish to spend time with animals at the San Diego Zoo, where Kevin Yates was a zookeeper for more than two decades before starting Nurtured by Nature with Wendy. Reagan got to do a behind-the-scenes tour at the zoo, thanks to Make A Wish, which also arranged for her otter swim at Nurtured by Nature. It was her favorite part of the animal tour because “the otters were funny,” she says.

“They were up close and personal, something she would never get to experience otherwise,” Jeri Ann says. “It’s important for us to see her smiling and having a good time. Knowing that she’s had such a challenging life, to see her happy and enjoying life is just a huge blessing.”

Wendy agrees. “There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a smile on the faces of the little kids, and then hearing from their caretaker that they haven’t seen their child smile or giggle in the last six months to a year because of the treatments they’ve been going through.”

Those smiling faces appear in handmade collages decorating the locker area at the facility that showcase the happiness and fun experienced by children who need it most. Make A Wish programs here are limited to one family per visit, so the children can get the most one-on-one interaction time with the animals possible.

“Every day we hear from people how it was the best day of their lives and it gave them so much joy,” she said. “What more can anybody ask for than to be able to give back to the world that way?”

The McBrides shared that sentiment. “It was the best trip ever,” Jeri Ann recalls. “We ran out of storage because we took so many pictures.”

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Jeri Ann McBride

For the Yates family, Nurtured by Nature is truly a mission of giving back. Their house was destroyed in the southern California wildfires in 2003. So many people—friends, family, and strangers—helped the couple get back on their feet. There was no way they could ever repay those who helped them, so Wendy says they decided to pay it forward instead, by opening Nurtured by Nature in 2008 and launching a partnership with Make A Wish.

Every animal on the property is considered a pet, complete with family bickering over what to name each of them, and the animals’ physical and emotional well-being is top priority. Some of the animals are born there (the otters were born and raised on-site from captive-born parents that came from two different zoos) as part of a conservation breeding program; others are surplus animals from other zoos; and many of them are rescues from breeders and research facilities, or animals confiscated by the State Department.

Nurtured by Nature is a California Fish and Wildlife- and USDA-permitted and inspected facility. The team works in concert with two veterinarians and ensures that everyone working with the animals has ample experience in the field. Kevin Yates has more than 30 years of professional exotic animal experience, and all 25 volunteers have a veterinary or zoological background.

My otter swim was the standard excursion, but that day it was a bit extended—not because we got special treatment, but because Rocket didn’t want to get out of the pool. Basically, you aren’t done until the otters are done. I stood by in the pool and watched as Rocket sat down under the railing on the pool steps just out of reach of Sarah, one of the animal keepers. He reached out his paw, grabbed one of Sarah’s hands, mischievously stared into her eyes for a minute, and then took off swimming again, inviting all of us to join the fun.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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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