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3 Extreme Ways To Go Green

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This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker, and appears in the March-April 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Recycle, schmecycle. These days, saving the Earth requires a lot more than just collecting cans.

1. Build Your House Out of Tires

Two decades ago, architect Michael Reynolds realized that a tree-hugging utopia would never be possible if homes weren't inexpensive, easy to build, and environmentally friendly. His solution? The Earthship.

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Earthships are built out of used tires that have been packed with dirt and then stacked in a brick-style pattern. Construction is almost obscenely simple, though time-consuming. It can take as long as half an hour to properly pack each tire. But what you lose in free time, you make up for in energy savings. Earthship walls absorb heat quickly and release it slowly, allowing the houses to maintain a natural temperature of around 60 degrees. They also use filtration systems to collect and recycle water so that, even in desert conditions, it doesn't need to be pumped in. [Images courtesy of Nicaragua Real Estate News.]

While living in an Earthship may take more work than living in a split-level in the suburbs, the eco-friendly homes have become surprisingly popular. Several Earthship subdivisions have opened up in the past few years, including the Greater World Earthship Community near Taos, New Mexico, which was founded in 1994. Greater World residents build their own homes and, in an interesting twist on subdivision bylaws, are expressly forbidden from hooking up to public utilities or digging wells on their land. Here are photos of a few Greater World Earthships:

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[Images courtesy of taosearthships.com.]

2. Fight Oil Spills with Mushrooms

In the war against ocean pollution, environmentalists have a new ally in mushrooms. As nature's morticians, mushrooms have the unique ability to take dead things and make them pretty again by turning decomposed matter into nutrients. In fact, they're so adept at tearing down and rebuilding chemical compounds that even oil spills are no match for their natural abilities.

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In November 2007, when an oil tanker sprang a leak in San Francisco Bay, 58,000 gallons of oil seeped into the water and beaches. A group of local activists decided to take the cleanup into their own hands, using a technique originally developed to dispose of used motor oil. They headed for the shore and laid out mats made of human hair that were covered in oyster mushrooms. The hair quickly soaked up all the oil, while the mushrooms digested the dangerous chemicals. Within 12 weeks, only harmless compost remained. Although technically illegal (the EPA and the Coast Guard prefer leaving toxic waste to trained cleaning squads), the hair-and-mushroom technique was a success. Actually, the process is so simple and cost-effective that grassroots organizations and local governments are encouraging federal officials to use it as a way to clean up contaminated soil on old factory sites and hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans.

3. Dumpster-Dive for Dinner

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Once upon a time, environmental idealists could make a statement simply by giving up steak. But today the ante has been upped. And freeganism has answered the call.

As the name suggests, freeganism is an off-shoot of veganism, meaning that most practitioners avoid all products made from animals. But the "free" part refers to how freegans get their victuals. Method No. 1? Digging through the dumpster.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans pitch 245 million tons of waste a year, much of which is salvageable. In addition to unfashionable furniture and clothes, plenty of edible food ends up in the garbage. According to unofficial freegan spokesman Adam Weissman, that waste is directly tied to capitalism, which freegans see as an oppressive economic system. To avoid contributing to it, they become scavengers—collecting the vast majority of what they eat, wear, and use from other people's garbage. Often, these "urban foragers" will meet in designated locations at designated times to rummage together in a group, typically focusing on dumpsters behind retailers, offices, schools, and other places of high-volume disposal.

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It's not as beggarly as you might imagine. Most freegans aren't homeless, and many of them have 9-to-5 jobs. They eat pretty well, chowing down on practically fresh veggies, day-old bread, and canned goods. Food poisoning is a risk, but smart freegans know to skirt bacteria-prone produce and avoid canned goods that are bulging or oozing. They're also big on community involvement. Veteran freegans train newbies in dumpster-diving technique and foraging for wild plants. They also organize "freemarkets," where goods and services are given away or bartered instead of sold. In fact, many trade goods via a Web site called freecycle.org, and the community even has its own section on Craigslist.

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Additionally, freegan-run organizations like Food Not Bombs (FNB) reclaim food to cook hot meals for the homeless. Using items that are either donated to them by stores or recovered from the trash, FNB members set up public stations to feed anyone who requests a meal. With chapters in more than 200 cities across the globe, the organization is slowly trying to prove that there is such a thing as a free lunch. [Images courtesy of Emo.ware.]

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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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May 23, 2017
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