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(C) The Field Museum

Tooth Decay May Have Turned Tsavo Lions into Man-Eaters

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(C) The Field Museum

Looking for good motivation to brush and floss? Mammal experts say the infamous lions that killed dozens of rail workers in Kenya in 1898 may have been driven by dental disease. They published a report on the unfortunate beasts in the journal Scientific Reports.

There were only two of them, but the damage they did was both extensive and terrifying. “I could plainly hear them crunching the bones,” Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson wrote in his diary, “and the sound of their dreadful purring filled the air and rang in my ears afterwards.”

Patterson with one of the Tsavo lions. Image Credit: The Field Museum

Patterson eventually killed the lions, and their remains were preserved for scientific study. Today, the two skulls are kept in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum so scientists can study them.

The Field Museum

Historians have long believed that the lions turned to human prey out of desperation when a famine eliminated their usual sources of food. If this was the case, the lions would have relished every last bite of every animal they killed, including the bones.

But when Field Museum researchers examined the Tsavo skulls, they began to suspect that the lieutenant’s “very vivid recollection” may have been at least slightly exaggerated, as the lions had clearly not been crunching anything. The microscopic signs of wear and tear that accompany regular hard use were nowhere to be found in the lions’ jaws.

They did, however, find evidence of dental problems. One lion had broken a canine tooth several years earlier, was missing three incisors, and had a periapical abscess, or pus pooled around the root of a tooth. The other had a fractured upper left carnassial (the equivalent of a molar) and exposed pulp (tissue at the center of a tooth).

Bruce Patterson (no relation) is the museum’s curator of mammals. He and his colleagues think the Kenyan lions’ suspiciously smooth teeth and dental injuries could have played a role in their attacks on humans. These types of injuries aren't uncommon, and they can be painful.

“Lions normally use their jaws to grab prey like zebras and wildebeests and suffocate them,” he said in a statement. If you’ve got a mouthful of hurt, you’re not going to leap face-first at a kicking wildebeest. “Humans are so much easier to catch,” Patterson said.

“We humans like to think we’re at the top of the food chain, but the moment we step off our paved streets, these other animals are really on top.”

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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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