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D'forest for d'trees

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One of our favorite blogs, Treehugger.com, has a fascinating post on eco-smart Chinese, who are now carrying their own chopsticks to their favorite restaurants when they eat out, doing what they can to help fight deforestation in a country that throws away 45 billion disposable pairs every year.

Elsewhere, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for the 30 million trees she planted in Africa to help counter forest loss, is busy working with Spain's Basque Government in an effort to plant 232,000 trees to neutralize carbon monoxide emissions in what they're calling a re-afforestation project.

It seems people all over the globe are finally waking up to the serious threat deforestation presents. In 6000 BC, when humans couldn't do much harm to the world ecosystem, trees covered two-fifths of the land. Since then, about half of the original forestland has disappeared.

But many people, such as British historian, Clive Ponting, point out that the problem is actually thousands of years old and are surprised we haven't learned our lesson yet, considering how many previous civilizations have collapsed as they've abused their natural resources.

As Ponting describes in his book, A Green History of the World, when populations expand and settlements grow, more and more trees are cut down to provide clearings for agriculture, fire for heating and cooking, and construction materials for homes and household goods. As a result, a series of ecological breakdowns occur as animals overgrazed, topsoil erodes and flooding becomes common in a cyclical pattern that has affected even the most formidable civilizations. Follow the jump and check out the details of a few "for instances" that affected biggies like the Greeks, the Romans, and the natives of Easter Island.

plato.jpgFor instance #1: in Greece, around 650 BC, hillsides once covered with vegetation and rich olive trees became barren, seriously affecting the Greek's economy and political power. Plato would write about the deforestation problem in one of his late dialogues, Critias:

What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man"¦ there are some mountains which now have nothing but food for bees, but they had trees not very long ago"¦

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For instance #2: Similar problems cropped up, if you'll excuse the pun, during the 4th and 5th centuries in Italy. Ponting argues that, along with the well-documented Roman political decay, serious deforestation and the abuse of other natural resources greatly contributed to the fall of the empire, as well. But the seeds were already being sewn during Caesar's rule. When the Gauls or Britains would escape his mighty legions and take to the forests, many Roman generals simply burned them to the ground.

moai_trees.jpg For instance #3: The Easter Islanders, famous for their moai statues, not only felled their forests for all the usual reasons, but used up enormous quantities of tree trunks to roll and erect their giant stone statues. As a result, by 1600, the island was almost completely deforested, with many moai left stranded at the quarry. Stranded, too, were the inhabitants, who couldn't build canoes and venture of the island. As a result, the population, like the trees, fell into near extinction.

Jared Diamond, the evolutionary biologist, adds this extreme-factoid, which I found on Wiki to support Ponting's theories:

The fact that oral traditions of the islanders are obsessed with cannibalism is evidence supporting a rapid collapse. For example, to severely insult an enemy one would say: "The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth." This suggests that the food supply of the people ultimately ran out.

Yes, it's the classic "your mother" insult, something as universal as the tree itself. Here's hoping the two never disappear completely.

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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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