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First American Bees Join Endangered Species List

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YouTube // naturesblueprint

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is shining a spotlight on threatened bee populations. Last week, USFWS suggested the rusty patched bumble bee belonged on the endangered species list. This week, it officially added seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees to the list [PDF]. The ruling, which will go into effect October 31, re-classifies the bees, three other animals (the band-rumped storm-petrel, the orangeblack Hawaiian damselfly, and the anchialine pool shrimp), and 39 plant species.

Hawaiian yellow-faced bees (genus Hylaeus) aren't as well-known as their bumble bee cousins or honeybees, but their story is no less incredible. A single bee traveled to Hawaii, found a local, and mated. Their offspring multiplied and spread across the islands, settling into niches in lush forests, volcanic slopes, high deserts, and white-sand beaches. Today, there are no fewer than 63 native Hylaeus species living in the islands. Naturalist R.C.L. Perkins called [PDF] the yellow-faced bees “almost the most ubiquitous of any Hawaiian insects.”

But their glory days were numbered. Human development began to chip away at the bees’ habitats and food supply, while invasive species like ants and flies carried disease and began competing for resources. Nine of the original 63 species have not been spotted in 80 years and may be extinct. Others have vanished from their original habitats, corralled into fast-shrinking safe areas. Among those are the seven newly designated endangered species: Hylaeus anthracinus, H. assimulans, H. facilis, H. hilaris, H. kuakea, H. longiceps, and H. mana.

While it might not sound like it, endangered species status is actually good news in this case. The bees and their classmates were already endangered; official designation is a step that makes it easier to protect them. Mary Abrams is USFWS supervisor for the Pacific Islands office. “Listing these species as endangered will help draw attention to the threats that have brought them so close to extinction, and allow us to begin the process of bringing about recovery,” she said in a press statement [PDF].

The designation is a good start, says Matthew Shepherd, communications director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Still, he writes on the society’s blog, “there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that Hawaii’s bees thrive.” Habitat loss is a major threat, but the USFWS did not call out any areas of the islands as “critical habitat,” a label that would ensure additional protection.

Abrams emphasized that the designation was just the beginning, adding, “We will continue working with local communities, governments, industry, and the people of Hawaii to protect and recover these native species, which are an important part of what makes these islands so special.”

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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