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10 Wild Fire Facts

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1. Do these fires really serve a purpose?

Absolutely. Fires are an important part of the ecology. In a redwood forest, for instance, a good blaze cleans out the understory. It destroys conifers that leech nutrients from the soil (like Douglas firs), while leaving the ground fertile for new growth. If Nature had her way, a fire would occur naturally every 40 years or so in the redwood community. But thanks to fire prevention measures in the 20th century, that cycle has been interrupted, resulting in a greatly reduced amount of "old growth" forests. Even those fires started by natural means, such as lightning strikes, are often squashed before they have a chance to run their course. Many national parks now employ the use of "prescribed burnings" - carefully controlled fires of moderate intensity "“ in an effort to help restore Nature's balance.

A recent 60 Minutes segment about "mega-fires" revealed why scientists believe the rash of wildfires in the West will only get worse in the years to come. A one-two punch of over-conservation and climate change has turned the land into a veritable tinderbox. While plant life has grown thick, the lack of moisture (due in part to dwindling snow in the mountains) only works to fan the flames.

2. What's that red stuff they spray from planes onto raging wildfires?

Believe it or not, water is the key ingredient in the red mixture. It's also treated with thickeners, to turn the liquid into a "blanket," and keep it from evaporating. Additionally, those thickeners also help to cover more area. As for the color, that comes from iron oxide (aka rust) and is added to make it clear to firefighters which areas have been treated. Sometimes the mixture includes fertilizer to help spur plant growth as well.

3. How did the San Francisco Earthquake turn into the San Francisco Fire?

In 1906, a huge earthquake in San Francisco caused a considerable amount of damage, but the major devastation came after a fire raged for four days afterward. The quake destroyed most of the underground water pipes, so firefighters had limited resources to work with. On top of that, the tightly packed wooden-frame structures south of Market Street went up like kindling, and broken gas lines throughout the area added fuel to the inferno. In the meantime, thousands of residents realized that their homes were insured against fire damage (earthquake insurance didn't yet exist). Thus, dwellings that had survived the flames "“ but had been damaged by the tremors - were deliberately torched by their owners.

Why Dalmatians live in firehouses, how smoke detectors work, and why fire hydrants come in different colors (there's a reason) all after the jump...

4. What's the connection between Dalmatians and firehouses?

In the 1800s, fire engines were horse-driven carriages. Unfortunately, horses and other equipment found in a fire station were prime targets for thieves at that time, especially in some of the poorer urban areas (where many fires occurred). Some firefighters tried to combat thievery by sleeping alongside their steeds, but since they were often exhausted from fighting blazes, that idea didn't always work. Eventually, the solution became clear: a watchdog.

And not just any watchdog. You see, horses are not solitary animals. They prefer the companionship of some other animal; another horse, a dog, a goat or even a chicken. Left alone too long, they grow restless and neurotic. Dalmatians, it was discovered, formed an amazingly close bond with horses once they were introduced. They also became quite protective and possessive of their equine friends, so it became impossible for anyone to try to spirit away a horse under cover of the night. In fact, the spotted pooches were also used by stagecoach drivers for the same purpose, and became colloquially known as "coach dogs."

5. How do smoke detectors work?

Radioactive material is known for causing burns, but in the case of smoke detectors, it can also prevent them. Most household devices - known as "ion chamber" detectors - contain a very small amount of Americium-241, a radioisotope that is artificially created by bombarding plutonium with neutrons. The material was discovered during the Manhattan Project, and was first offered to industry in the early 1960s. The majority of Americium produced goes into making smoke detectors and one gram of the material is enough to equip some 5,000 detectors.

But back to how it works. The Americium emits alpha particles of radiation, which create ions of oxygen and nitrogen in the detector. A small electrical charge (supplied by DC or AC power) usually catches these ions. But when smoke enters the detector, it absorbs the alpha particles, the ionization rate falls, and the electrical current dips, causing the alarm to sound.

6. Why are fire hydrants painted different colors?

Currently, there is no law regulating the color-coding of fire hydrants, but the National Fire Protection Association has suggested standards that most municipalities follow to some extent. They suggest that the best color for the body of the hydrant is chrome yellow, but if an area has already designated another color, then it should be consistent (no polka dots on one, stripes on another).

Traditionally, hydrants connected to municipal water systems are painted yellow, while those that operate from a private system are red. Hydrants that pump non-potable water are either painted violet or have at least one violet cap. The bonnets and caps on the hydrants should also be painted to indicate the available water pressure. Red indicates the lowest pressure (less than 500 gallons per minute at 20 psi), followed by orange, green and ultimately light blue, which pumps 1500 GPM or more.

7. Did Nero really fiddle while Rome burned?

NeroSweltering summers were common in Rome, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, better known as Nero, had traveled to the coastal resort town of Antium to escape the July heat in the year 64 CE. A fire broke out in one of the shops in Circus Maximus on the evening of July 19, and aided by strong winds, quickly raged out of control. When the emperor received word of the conflagration, he rushed back to the city and aided in the rescue efforts.

When the blaze was finally extinguished after six days, Nero opened up his palace to house many of the homeless, and used his personal funds to feed and shelter others. As for the bit about Nero fiddling, that part's inaccurate as well. Particularly, since the violin wasn't invented until the Renaissance.

8. What real fire appeared on the most-watched TV show ever?

In October 1982, brush fires on the Fox Studios Ranch set aflame much of the outdoor set of the TV series M*A*S*H. The cast was in the middle of filming the series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," so producers wrote the fire into the script. The smoldering structures were real parts of the set, and footage of a "bug out" from a previous year's episode was incorporated to show the movement of the facility. (Remember, the "M" in M*A*S*H stands for Mobile.) The land is now part of Malibu Canyon Creek State Park.

9. How do doctors determine what percentage a victim is burned?

The basic burn assessment relies on two protocols: the rule of nines, and the Lund-Browder chart. The rule of nines, developed in the 1950s, divided the human body into multiples of nine. Each arm is 9%, a leg is 18%, and so on. This method enabled a doctor to quickly examine the patient, see that he had burns on the palm of one hand, up the arm and half the chest, and determine that approximately 20 percent of his body had been burned.

This method proved less accurate when it came to children, however, since their physical proportions are quite different from those of the average adult. Two American doctors, Charles Lund and Newton Browder, came up with a burn chart in 1944 that broke down the human figure into separate, defined sections. It also included a formula for calculating body surface area based on the age of the patient.

10. And what bizarre fire profoundly affected renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright?

TaliesinOn August 15, 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright was working at his Chicago office. To the north, in his famous Taliesin estate in Wisconsin, were his mistress, Mamah Borthwick, her two children, and six servants. For reasons unknown, one of the servants "“ Julian Carleton "“ commited a heinous and murderous act of arson. He bolted the doors and windows, poured gasoline around the house, and set it on fire. Carleton then took a hatchet and attacked those who tried to break out of the home. Two of the workers miraculously survived, but everyone else perished. The flames devastated the living quarters, but spared Wright's studio. Although understandably heartbroken, the architect promised to reconstruct the home and did. It burned again in 1925, but rose once more from the ashes.

Like this post? Here are a couple more mental_floss articles you might dig as well: Our Favorite Vampires, The First Time News Was Fit to Print, Vol. XII, All Knotted Up: Culture's Greatest Tiebreakers, 5 Celebs Who Suffer from Aviophobia (and 1 who used to).

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]