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10 Stinging Facts About Scorpions

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Not a fan? Consider vacationing in Antarctica—the only continent with no resident scorpions. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that the creepy crawlies are an amazingly successful bunch, with over 1500 known species lurking about. Here’s a quick guide to these wonderful arachnids.

1. BABIES RIDE ON THEIR MOTHER’S BACK FOR PROTECTION.

While spiders lay eggs, pregnant scorpions take a different approach. In a process called ovoviviparity, babies hatch out of eggs that gestate within their mother’s body and then emerge from her as fully developed infants. Once outside, the tiny newborns are more or less helpless. So, for some much-needed security, they take up residence atop mother’s back. Here the babies remain until their first molt takes place—usually around one week later.

Scorpions make interesting parents. On the one hand, mothers of several species will crush up small insects and feed bite-sized chunks to their brood. However, should food get scarce, a female often resorts to eating her own progeny.

2. MASSES OF SCORPIONS WILL SOMETIMES SPEND THE WINTER TOGETHER.

During most months, scorpions tend to be solitary animals. But between November and March, a few species—like the dreaded North American bark scorpion—are prone to hunker down under some type of shelter (manmade or otherwise). There, upwards of 40 individuals can hibernate side by side. Naturally, discovering such a slumber party is every arachnophobe’s worst nightmare.

Believe it or not, many scorpions literally freeze while hibernating. Upon springtime’s return, they thaw out and track down a meal.

3. SO-CALLED “WHIP SCORPIONS” AREN’T TRUE SCORPIONS AT ALL.

If you live in a tropical or subtropical part of Africa, Asia, or the Americas, you may’ve had some personal experience with whip scorpions (also known as “vinegaroons” and “uropygids”). Unlike real scorpions, which belong to a different arachnid order, these oddball invertebrates lack stingers and venom glands. Instead, a long, whip-like appendage protrudes from the hind end. Near its base lie two openings which can fire off twin streaks of a highly acidic, vinegar-like spray. Should this stuff land in an attacker’s eye, temporary blindness might follow.

4. THEY HAVE INCREDIBLY SLOW METABOLISMS.

Scorpions take leisure to a whole new level. Many spend 92 to 97 percent of their lives sitting motionless in burrows. Because they expend little energy, they can get by on very little nutrients. Some scorpions have been known to go over a year between meals.

5. THE SMALLEST KNOWN SCORPION IS LESS THAN A HALF-INCH LONG.

Discovered in 2014, Microtityus minimus (common name pending) is indigenous to the Dominican Republic, where it occupies southern foothills. At 0.4 inches from end to end, it’d look like a real pip-squeak beside either of the two biggest scorpions on Earth: India’s Heterometrus swammerdami and the African Pandinus imperator (aka the “emperor scorpion”), which grow from 5.9 to nearly 8 inches long.

6. ONE MOUSE IS AMAZINGLY RESISTANT TO PAINFUL SCORPION STINGS.

Human victims who’ve had a run-in with the business end of an Arizona bark scorpion (Centruroides sculpturatus) feel an intense burning, prickly sensation. For grasshopper mice, the whole experience is a lot less dramatic.

Unlike the typical house mouse (a distant relative), the grasshopper mouse has a mutation that neutralizes the venom of the bark scorpion, which it eats. In order to feel pain, two separate steps are required: first, something must initiate the signal which then has to reach the brain. But something else happens when a grasshopper mouse gets stung by one of these scorpions—after the venom is injected, the ensuing pain signal never gets sent to the brain.

This trick probably evolved to keep the mammals from starving. As neurobiologist Ashlee Rowe explains, dietary options are extremely limited out in the Arizona desert, where the stinging scorpions “represent a really valuable food resource” for the mice.

7. COURTSHIP DANCES CAN GET RATHER ROUGH.

Come mating season, males of several scorpion species seize their partner by the pedipalps (pincers). Should she resist his advances, a male might give the female a “kiss,” pressing his jaws against hers. That’s when things get unpredictable. Sometimes, the scorpions proceed to circle each other—claw in claw—for hours on end. And, sometimes, one or both parties repeatedly sting the other.

If all goes well for the male, he releases a packet of sperm, which sticks onto the ground beneath him. Then, he physically drags his mate over the packet, hoping that she grabs it and stuffs it into her genital opening. In the aftermath, the female either abandons her partner, or—worst-case scenario—eats him.

8. THEY GLOW UNDER UV LIGHTS.

Looking for scorpions after dusk? Bring a portable black light. Under an ultraviolet beam, the invertebrates glow like novelty children’s toys, emitting a strange bluish green hue. Nobody’s quite sure why they do this, but experts have their theories.

In 2010, arachnologist Carl Kloock and his colleagues at California State University exposed a series of scorpions to ultraviolet beams. Beneath higher UV levels, the test animals stayed relatively inert, becoming more active only when the lights were turned down.

Moonlight could explain his findings. By and large, scorpions are nocturnal. Throughout the day, the Sun emits far more ultraviolet waves than those reflected by the Moon at night. “They may be using UV as a way to determine whether or not to come to the surface to look for prey, based on the light levels,” Kloock says.

This still doesn’t explain why scorpions become fluorescent, though. For the record, Kloock thinks the glowing phenomena is probably “part of the mechanism by which the scorpions respond to moonlight.”

9. A SCORPION’S EXOSKELETON MIGHT ACT LIKE ONE GIANT EYEBALL.

Even with their stingers, scorpions are vulnerable in the open. When not out hunting, the animals instinctively seek shelter—which isn’t easy to locate in pitch-black darkness. Nevertheless, they’re quite good at tracking down hiding spots at all hours of night.

University of Oklahoma biologist Douglas Gaffin thinks that a special optic talent helps scorpions navigate the gloom. Their exoskeleton, he believes, gathers “stray UV light” from the Moon and stars. Theoretically, this converts the creature’s outer casing into a “whole-body light detector” that sends information directly to the brain.

If true, this would mean that a scorpion can use its entire exoskeleton as an extra-large eye. To test his bold hypothesis, Gaffin exposed more than 100 scorpions to UV light and covered the eyeballs of some with foil. The blindfolded arachnids moved just as normally as the control specimens did. These results suggest that Gaffin’s hunch may well have some merit.

10. FEWER THAN 25 SPECIES CAN KILL PEOPLE.

Scorpion attacks can cause anything from mild discomfort to muscular twitching to irregular heartbeats. Yet, only around two dozen species are capable of taking human life. Among these outliers, the “southern man-killer” (Androctonus australis) is particularly infamous in north Africa, where it’s responsible for 95 percent of scorpion-related fatalities.

Also, note that these arachnids are especially dangerous to children. The Brazilian yellow scorpion (Tityus serrulatus), for instance, reportedly kills 3000 people a year, many of them young.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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