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6 Animals That Show Mother Nature's Sense of Humor

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You've heard jokes like these all your life: What do you get if you cross an octopus with a cow? An animal that can milk itself. I didn't find such an animal, but the world has plenty of strange species that at first glance appear to be hybrids of unrelated species because they have attributes that surprise us. However, we are only surprised because our personal experiences don't encompass all that nature offers.

1. Turtle + Hedgehog = Armadillo

Rudyard Kipling wrote the story The Beginning of the Armadillos, in which the animal came from a tortoise and a hedgehog. They didn't join to give birth to armadillos; instead, they taught each other their talents. The hedgehog helped the tortoise learn to curl into a ball, and the tortoise taught the hedgehog to swim, which toughened up his spines into armor. Before they knew it, both had turned into armadillos.

Here in the real world, armadillos are related to both sloths and anteaters and are native to Latin America except for the nine-banded armadillo we see in the US. In certain states they are called "speed bumps". Armadillo image by Flickr user Ben Cooper.

2. Giraffe + Zebra = Okapi

giraffe550_Okapi

The okapi (Okapia johnstoni) appears to be a short giraffe with a zebra's legs tacked on as an afterthought. The animal, which lives only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (and in zoos), is actually related to the giraffe but was "shorted" in the neck department. To make up for that oversight, the okapi has a tongue long enough to lick its own ears! The zebra stripes are thought to be used as camouflage, and to make it easy for okapi young to follow their mothers through the rain forest. Okapi image by Raul654.

3. Anteater + Armadillo = Pangolin

anteater550_pangolin

The pangolin is also known as the spiny anteater. They are mammals, but have keratin scales over their bodies. They roll up into a ball in defense like an armadillo or a hedgehog. Recent genetic studies show that pangolins are related to neither anteaters (despite the fact that they eat ants) nor armadillos. But the weirdness doesn't stop there: pangolins can spray a nasty musk just like a skunk. And they don't have any teeth!

4. Bird + Fox = Fruit Bat

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Fruit bats encompass several species and are also called megabats or flying foxes. What sets fruit bats apart from your garden variety insect-eating belfry-hangers is the fact that most fruit bats do not use echolocation to get around. They need their eyes big and their noses long to sense where they are going, so their faces look like more familiar land mammals—particularly dogs. No doubt that's where the term flying fox came from. If you couldn't see a fruit bat's wings, you might have a hard time guessing the species. Fox image by Flickr user Kris *Thirty6Red*. Bat image by Flickr user smccann.

5. Duck + Beaver = Platypus

beaver550Platypus

The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) of Australia looks like a taxidermy experiment in which a mammal has been accessorized with a beaver's tail, a duck's bill, the venom of a snake, and the feet of an otter. This animal is not related to any of the others, however. The platypus is a monotreme. It shares that order with only four other species which are all echidnas. It is truly unique in the animal kingdom, and the most likely of any in this list to be an example of God's sense of humor. Platypus image by Stefan Kraft.

6. Hoop Snake + Lizard = Armadillo Girdled Lizard

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This lizard might be what people saw when they came up with the legend of the hoop snake (featured in a previous post). You don't find too many lizards that protect themselves by rolling into a ball, but the Armadillo Girdled Lizard (Cordylus cataphractus) does just that. This lizard grabs its tail with its mouth and forms a ring with its spines pointing out. Any predator will have a hard time figuring this thing out, much less eating it! The name is just a descriptor; this lizard has no relation to an armadillo, which is a mammal.

Can you think of other examples of animals that look like hybrids of unrelated species?

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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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