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Canada Lynx: The Ghost Cat of the North

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Photo credit: Flickr user Keith Williams.

Of the four existing species in the genus Lynx, two live in North America. One is the bobcat; the other is its furry northern cousin, the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis). The Canada lynx ranges across Canada and Alaska, with smaller populations extending into Montana, Maine, and several other states. Although the Canada lynx is usually larger than a bobcat, their ranges overlap and they sometimes interbreed. Their territories also overlap with mountain lions, but a mountain lion will kill a lynx.

Photo credit: Flickr user Eric Kilby.

A lynx may look huge to an observer because it is a wild predator, but it is not considered a "big cat." They are 19-24 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh 18-24 pounds, making them about twice the size of a house cat. They are good swimmers, excellent at climbing trees, and can leap long distances, leaving conservationists looking far and wide for tracks in the snow.

Photo credit: Flickr user Jeremy McBride.

The Canada lynx is remarkable for its thick winter fur and its tremendously large feet and webbed toes. This cat can run across the top of thick snow as if it were wearing snowshoes, although with a much more graceful gait. Its primary winter prey is the snowshoe hare, and lynx populations rise and fall with the availability of hares.

Photo credit: James Weliver/USFWS via Flickr.

The State of Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service beginning in 1999 to study Maine's lynx population. The diminishing number of lynx in Maine is thought to be due to climate change and the lack of adequate snow in recent decades. A team of wildlife biologists photographed a series of den visits in 2010, which you can see in this Flickr set.

Photo credit: Flickr user Angell Williams.

The U.S. Forest Service began tracking lynx populations in 1997. In Montana, lynx are trapped in cages, sedated, measured and sampled, and fitted with GPS collars before being freed.  

Photo credit: James Weliver/USFWS via Flickr.

A female lynx will give birth to a kindle of two to five kittens a year, depending on the abundance of prey. Kindles of up to eight kittens are possible, however. The snowshoe hare population rises and falls in a cycle that lasts around ten years. While other predators move on to other meals when the hares are scarce, the Canada lynx depends on them, and their numbers follow the same cycle as the hares – at least in Canada. In Montana, Wyoming, and other states, loss of habitat, illegal hunting, and unpredictable weather make survival harder for both hares and the lynx.

Image credit: Devineaux, et al, Journal of Wildlife Management, 2010.

The lynx was once common in Colorado, but was totally wiped out in the state by the 1970s. In 1999, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife department introduced 96 lynx into the state. By 2002, the number had dropped to 34. Some had been shot, others hit by cars, and still others had starved. Subsequent relocations of Canada lynx fared better, with a total of 218 cats imported from Canada to Colorado. The first observed lynx kittens born to the reintroduced cats in Colorado were seen in 2003, and subsequent litters have been documented. The lynx in Colorado have learned to eat squirrels as a supplement to their rabbit diet. Although the actual number of lynx in Colorado is impossible to assess, the reintroduction program has been deemed a success. A motorist spotted these cats last weekend on Molas Pass between Silverton and Durango.  
 

Photo credit: Flickr user digitalART2.

In the United States, the Canada lynx is designated as a threatened species, except in Alaska. The population of Canada lynx is diminishing in Washington state because logging has restricted the size of forests, but a conservation group managed to set aside 25,000 acres of forest in 1999 for the estimated 150 cats in the state. In 1999 and 2000, a hair-trapping experiment failed to find any evidence of lynxes in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, although sporadic reports of sightings still come in. A program to reintroduce lynx to the Adirondack Mountains of New York between 1989 and 1992 failed when none of the 83 cats were able to be tracked successfully, and occasional reported sightings are considered to be bobcats. Lynx have been sighted in New Hampshire, but it is not known whether they came from Maine, New York, or Canada.   

Photo credit: Flickr user Jeremy McBride.

If you ever see a lynx, grab your camera quickly, as they prefer to stay hidden. Goodbye!

See also: 8 Obscure But Adorable Wildcat 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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