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William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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The Mysterious Irish Island That's Populated by Australian Wallabies

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William Murphy via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Peer out the passenger window of an airplane arriving or departing Dublin Airport in County Dublin, Ireland and you may get a bird’s eye view of two islands with significant stories behind them. One is Ireland’s Eye, thick with fog and gothic history—an artist named William Kirwan was convicted of killing his wife during a holiday there in 1852. The other is Lambay Island, a rocky, green terrain spread across 650 acres that was long ago used as a layover for Vikings and pirates in pillaging operations.

What really sets Lambay apart, however, needs to be seen up close—and then only if you're lucky. At any given time, between 100 and 140 red-necked wallabies roam the grounds, bouncing away from tourists and residents and grazing on grass along with cattle and deer. Natives of Australia, the displaced wallabies have attracted plenty of attention and curiosity over the decades. Who brought them? And what happens if they begin to outgrow a small slice of land more than 9000 miles from home?

An aerial shot of Lambay Island. Wikimedia Commons

In April 1904, banker Cecil Baring was browsing Ireland’s Field newspaper when he came across a classified advertisement that caught his attention. “Island for Sale” referred to Lambay, which had been owned for most of the previous century by the Talbot family and was named after the Norse word for “lamb.”

Baring paid a sum in the range of £5250 to £9000 (around $700,000 to $1,200,000 today), an investment that secured Lambay as a Baring property handed down from one generation to another. Cecil commissioned an architect named Edward Lutyens to renovate the worn castle that sat on the land; it eventually became a refuge for Cecil’s adult son, Rupert, who became a fixture in newspapers in 1935 when his fiancé, Angela, sued him for “breach of promise” after he didn't marry her. (Their published love letters became the entertainment of the day, with Rupert's pet name disclosed as "Boodles.")

In the 1950s, the Barings reportedly planned for a zoo to occupy Lambay. Among the animals brought over were wallabies, tortoises, and lizards. It’s not known how many were delivered or how many survived, but "Boodles" apparently took a liking to the kangaroo’s smaller relatives. In the 1980s, when the Dublin Zoo experienced a surge in wallaby numbers, the Barings agreed to take seven of them for Lambay.

Rupert died in 1994, but the wallabies remained. Rupert’s son, James, a pilot who owned London’s Regent Sound Studio that hosted the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, inherited the island. Once, kayakers decided to step on the grounds and ran into James, asking if the legend about the wallabies was true. It was.

James Baring died in 2012, leaving the island to the Lambay Estate Company and his son, Alex, who is a part-time occupant and plans on opening the area to a high-end tourist trade. (Alex did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

Clearly, the unusual sight of roving, red-necked wallabies is intended to be part of the attraction. But what do the animals make of Irish landscapes when the species was reared in Australia?

“They’re actually quite adaptable,” Kevin Drees, a director of animal care at Blank Park Zoo and an expert in captive wallabies, tells mental_floss. Thanks to an ability to grow a dense coat of fur, “they can cope with cooler temperatures than kangaroos, which is one of the reasons they’re so popular in zoos.”

Lambay is not so strange an environment for them as it might appear. (It's also not the only island outside of Australia they occupy: Inchconnachan in Loch Lomond, Scotland has had wallabies for over 60 years after a wealthy vacation resident introduced them in the 1940s.) While the presence of puffins and cattle makes for what Drees calls “an unnatural grouping of animals,” they have plenty of grass to munch and plenty of places to hop and hide when their shy instincts kick in around humans. Docile, they’re unlikely to mimic the boxing kangaroos of Australian lore, and the only time they might get anxious is if a visitor brings a dog along.

“They’re very clever,” Michael Bermingham, a business associate of Baring’s who has made several treks to the island, tells mental_floss. “They’ll climb up on rocks where you can’t follow.”

Although the Barings allow boat and walking tours, it’s by invitation only: The island remains largely untouched by human intervention. Only the Barings, a few farmhands, and a veterinarian spend any real length of time in residence there. “The animals there really tend to the land,” Bermingham says. “Grazing is important to maintain it.” And while wallabies like to swim, it’s virtually impossible they could make it the three miles to shore to invade the coast.

The real problem, as Drees sees it, is twofold. Wallabies can reproduce quickly, leading to potential overpopulation problems. (Their babies, known as joeys, can feed from the mother while a fertilized egg waits for an opportune time to continue development and take over the pouch.) And because the inhabitants are descended from a small number of non-native relatives, inbreeding is a possibility.

“Inbreeding can lead to health issues, like heart defects,” he says. "You'd have to bring in [new] wallabies to keep that from happening."

For now, the wallabies of Lambay appear to be thriving. And one way the Barings appear to be keeping their numbers under control is by entering into a partnership with Bermingham, who has an exclusive agreement to claim a portion of the wallaby population for his own purposes.

“I like making wallaby slider burgers," he says.

iStock

Bermingham is co-owner of M&K Meats, a prospering meat supplier in Rathcoole that enjoys a brisk trade in organic, farm-to-fork premium meats that he sells to high-end clients all over Ireland and the UK. Three years ago, he agreed to peddle wallaby meat sourced exclusively from Lambay Island.

“It’s very lean, very rich in protein,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the grass diet, or the herbs on the island, but it has a fascinating flavor.”

Wallaby steak, he admits, is “not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.” Still, interest in the meat appears to be gathering momentum. “Wallaby meat in Ireland—people go, ‘What?’ Some are intrigued, some take it or leave it.”

M&K appears to be taking enough of it to keep the population curbed. Culling is done on site, with hunters dispatching of the wallabies using rifles. Because they’re so averse to humans, Bermingham says it can make a round-up difficult. “The last time, it took a guy three days to get four of them.”

Bermingham also captures rabbit and deer on site, with cattle and lamb taken as livestock. Because of the island’s seclusion, he says the meat is untouched by any of the illnesses that can plague agricultural farming on the mainland.

It’s not yet known whether Baring’s plans for tourism will include an on-site wallaby dining experience. But the time may have come when the animals are less an invasive species and more an integral part of the island’s unique ecosystem.

“If it’s about nature, no, the wallaby doesn’t fit,” Drees says. “But if it’s about the history of the island, then perhaps they see the value in it. It would make a good study in human-altered habitats.”

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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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May 23, 2017
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