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8 Wildly Inaccurate Myths About Spiders (Plus the Truth)

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You might know that spiders aren’t insects (they’re part of the Arachnida group, not the Insecta) but many other spider myths still persist. Chances are you’ve called any old web a “cobweb,” thought you were being nice by putting a spider outside instead of killing it, and made wild claims about how many spiders people swallow in their sleep each year. Read on to learn what’s real, what’s fake, and where the most persistent alternative spider facts got their start.

1. ALL SPIDERS SPIN WEBS, WHICH ARE WHERE SPIDERS LIVE.

Webs are not houses—they are made to catch food. And not all spiders spin webs: some get their dinner by hiding inside flowers or hunting. Their silk production isn’t limited to webs, either: Spider silk comes in seven different varieties, from durable draglines and parachutes to the kind used to wrap up prey.

2. ALL WEBS ARE “COBWEBS.”

As far as scientists are concerned, “cobweb” isn’t just a synonym for a spider web. It’s a specific kind of web made by spiders from the Theridiidae family. Unlike the ritzy orb webs you might be more familiar with (like the one above), cobwebs are messy, three-dimensional webs that look more appropriate in a creepy house than a garden, though some Theridiidae species live outdoors.

3. SPIDERS WILL BITE YOU WHILE YOU SLEEP.

Sorry, but they’re just not that into you. Spiders can tell the difference between a person and something they want to eat, and human sleeping sounds, like breathing and snoring, are pretty scary. Even if you roll directly onto a sheet covered in the critters, you’re more likely to make a mess than get hurt: spider fangs don’t stick up like dinosaur spikes. They’re on the other side, pointing down.

4. PUTTING SPIDERS “BACK OUTSIDE” IS NICE.

We all have that friend who makes a face when we kill a spider. They would never do that. They put spiders outside, usually using some stressful combination of a glass and a piece of paper. While there are outdoor spiders and indoor spiders, however, many species can’t survive in both environments. If you want to be nice, put the spider in your neighbor’s house.

Spiders don’t “come inside” in the fall, either. Those are just male spiders—who already live in your house—running around looking for a mate.

5. THERE’S ALWAYS A SPIDER THREE FEET AWAY.

It depends on where you are. If you’re at a spider exhibit, sure. If you’re at the top of the Eiffel Tower, chances are pretty slim. This false fact is actually an arachnologist’s fault: In 1995, Norman Platnick started an article with “Wherever you sit as you read these lines, a spider is probably no more than a few yards away.”

There are over 40,000 different species of spider in the world, so it’s not totally bonkers to assume there’s one around you somewhere, but science doesn’t have a precise estimate for how close they are to you at any given time.

6. IN FACT, THERE’S ONE UNDER YOUR TOILET SEAT.

One of the most famous spider hoaxes involves an “allegedly deadly South American spider, Arachnius gluteus”—and that name should be enough to clue you in. While the original hoax, which began circulating in 1999, had obviously fictional elements—like a non-existent Chicago airport and a totally made-up scientific journal—recent versions sound more plausible. There still isn’t a venomous spider under your toilet seat, though—and if there were, it would be much more scared of you.

7. SPIDERS ARE JERKS.

Spiders’ reputations precede them: They’ve been blamed for everything from regular old aggression to eating their mates and laying eggs in the cheeks of little girls. Contrary to popular belief, some spiders can be quite charming when the mood strikes. Both male fishing spiders and male nursery web spiders who treat their ladies to silk-wrapped snacks experience more reproductive success than spiders who show up empty-handed; a study led by Dr. Maria Albo found that nursery web males with gifts were allowed to mate nearly ten times longer than their unromantic counterparts.

8. YOU SWALLOW EIGHT SPIDERS PER YEAR WHILE SLEEPING.

We don’t swallow four spiders a year, eight spiders a year, 20 spiders in our lifetime, or any such number—unless, of course, you are a professional spider-swallower. “For a sleeping person to swallow even one live spider would involve so many highly unlikely circumstances,” Rob Crawford, Arachnid Curator at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, writes.

According to Snopes.com, this myth was started in 1993 when a columnist for PC Professional included it on a list of false facts. She was trying to prove how quickly misinformation spread via email and, well, that is definitely true: It looks like a magazine called PC Professional never even existed.

All photos via iStock.

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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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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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