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Universally Accessible Treehouses

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Forever Young Treehouses is a corporation that designs treehouses for communities, camps, and organizations with a special emphasis on accessibility for the disabled. Their treehouses are also environmentally-friendly, and incorporate existing trees into the design. Their goal is to have an accessible treehouse in every state. Forever Young's staff will scout the area, inspect the trees, make a custom design, and help to organize local financing and labor. Take a look at some of their projects.

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The Pine Tree Society for individuals with disabilities operates Pine Tree Camp in Rome, Maine. Their treehouse was a community project, with donations coming from all over the state. It was built by volunteers, beginning with children who were camping at the site in September of 2007.

Six-year-old Nicholas Alexander of Belgrade was among the group of campers. The first-time camper was proud and excited to be such a special part of the treehouse. But Nicholas's involvement exceeded pounding the first nail. From the beginning of the project, Nicholas and his father, Keith, helped raise money and helped spread the word to their community. All told, Nicholas raised more than $3,000 for the Pine Tree Camp's treehouse.

The treehouse is now complete, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held this spring. (image credit: Erin Rice, Pine Tree Society)

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Candlelight Ranch near Austin, Texas provide nature experiences for special needs children and their families. The Candlelight Treehouse was completed in 2004, and stands 19 feet above ground. 155 feet of ramp leads to the 500 square foot play area inside. The ranchers like their treehouse so much, they are planning to build two more! The Reese Foundation won naming rights in 2007 by raising $50,000 for Candlelight Ranch. The treehouse now sports a plaque that says Reese's Treehouse, in memory of Reese Alexandra Gray who was born prematurely and died in 2006.

More treehouses in more places, after the jump.

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Camp Victory in Millville, Pennsylvania was founded in 1987 to serve children with debilitating illnesses and disabilities. "Partner groups" use the site for various types of camps through the summer. The Camp Victory Treehouse designed by Forever Young opened in time for the 2007 season. It was funded and built by West Pharmaceutical Services. See a video here.

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Cradle Beach in Angola, New York offers summer camps for disabled and disadvantaged children and also rents its facilities to a variety of organizations. An Amish family built their treehouse in four months in 2005.

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More and more public parks are building accessible treehouses. The world's first universally accessible community treehouse was built in Oakledge Park in Burlington, Vermont in 2004. Burlington is the home base of Forever Young Treehouses. The project involved hundreds of volunteers and donors, including individuals, corporations, and organizations who came together to construct the 500 square foot treehouse, which is connected to nine living trees.

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Everybody's Treehouse was completed in 2007 at Mt. Airy Forest in Cincinnnati, Ohio. Bill Allen of Forever Young talked to the New York Times about it.

Its 160-foot ramp winds among 14 trees (red and white oaks, maples and ash) as it climbs 15 feet to a 2,000-square-foot house with two asymmetrical cedar-shingle roofs that give it a Hansel-and-Gretel look. The structure is made of tongue-and-groove pine boards with an ipê-wood deck and has eight windows; most start 32 inches from the floor, an ideal height for wheelchair occupants. "For a kid in a wheelchair," Mr. Allen said, "it gives a different perspective of what the world looks like, of what a tree looks like, of what a forest looks like."

A stronge collaboration between city officials, sponsors, civic organizations, and construction crews meant this treehouse could be built in record time -only 32 days! HBA Charitable Projects kept a photoblog on the construction of the Mt. Airy Treehouse. It is described as having "one of the most whimsical and complicated roofing systems ever seen". (image credit: Jennifer Johnson)

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The accessible treehouse at Nay Aug Park in Scranton, Pennsylvania is perched 150 feet above the wooded valley! The David Wenzel Tree house was built with funds from many corporate and individual donors. It was named for the former mayor of Scranton who lost both legs and his left hand in the Vietnam War. Wenzel worked to promote accessibility in Scranton as mayor, and nationwide as a member of the National Council of Disability. See a video of the treehouse here.

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In 2002, Forever Young built a private treehouse for James, a wheelchair-bound 6th grader who was referred by the Vermont chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Local businesses donated materials. The finished house sits 22 feet above the ground and can sleep two. Furnished with a wood stove, it can be used year-round.

Find out more about building an accessible treehouse in your community at Forever Young.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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