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12 Things You Might Not Know About the Dust Bowl

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In the 1930s, the United States faced one of its greatest natural disasters. The farmers in the High Plains had turned over too much soil too fast, leaving over 100 million acres stripped of its native Buffalo Grass and barren of crop. Combine this with one of the driest summers on record and you have what came to be known as the Dirty Thirties.

1. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, a governor from Oklahoma (one of the hardest hit states), ran for President in 1932 under the platform "Bread, Butter, Bacon, Beans." During a time when most people were eating various forms of wheat three times a day, bacon and beans were powerful words. Not powerful enough, however to beat FDR for the Democratic nomination.

2. During a particularly bad storm on May 9, 1934, over three tons of dust for every American alive traveled across the country covering Chicago, New York and Atlanta. The storm spanned 1,800 miles and weighed 350 million tons.

3. At one point, 4,000 out of 5,500 families in six Oklahoma counties were receiving government aid. When FDR came into office he also implemented a program in which the government bought these farmers' starving livestock in order to butcher those still edible to feed the homeless in the Hoovervilles. The $12 earned for every cattle sold was soon the only source of income for many.

4. Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, grew rampantly during this period—one of the few plants that could survive the harsh conditions. People became so desperate that they started to brine the tumbleweed, rendering it edible. Supposedly high in Chlorophyll and iron, a county in Oklahoma declared a "Russian Thistle Week" where people were encouraged to harvest the weeds.

dust-bowl.jpg5. When a storm blew in, people were never safe. Dust particles snuck through cracks in their walls and windows, clogging their ears, noses, and mouths. The buildup of this dust in the lungs caused dust pneumonia, which is a lot like the Silicosis. Silicosis, the oldest occupational respiratory disease, was now affecting every person, young or old, in the High Plains.


6. This was the era of Bonnie and Clyde's famous bank robberies, and many farmers admired the duo for their sense of justice. Many people figured that the banks that had robbed them of their savings during the bank crisis deserved to get a taste of their own medicine.

7. The 1930s were the first decade where the birth rate fell below twenty children for every 1,000 women. Never before had there been so few children living in the United States.

8. The worst storm of the Dust Bowl occurred on April 14, 1935—Black Sunday. Carrying dust up to 200 miles off the Atlantic coast, the storm blackened cities and traveled at over 100 miles per hour. Animals and insects fled south and a woman believing the storm marked the beginning of Armageddon, killed her child to spare her the horror. And while Hugh Hammond Bennett was delivering a speech to Congress about soil preservation, dust rained down on Washington D.C. and blackened out the sun. Congress passed his legislation.

9. A single storm generated enough static electricity to short radios and cars and caused blue flames to erupt from barbed wire fences. It was so strong it even knocked full grown men off their feet if they accidentally touched or shook hands. People would drag chains in order to offset the static electricity. On Black Tuesday, enough static electricity was produced to power New York City.

guthrie.jpg10. Woody Guthrie (the singer of "This Land") even wrote a song about the Dust bowl. Surrounded by people claiming Black Sunday to be the end of world, Guthrie penned his famous song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya." You can listen to it here.


11. While two-thirds of farmers of the Dust Bowl stayed, those that did leave had minimal prospects of finding jobs. Many had no money, no gas for their ragged Ford Model T and no place to go. Arizona didn't want them and California placed signs at their borders that read "Okies Not Welcome."

12. The Plow that Broke the Plain is an excellent documentary by Pare Lorentz. Filmed during the Dirty Thirties, it illustrated the causes and effects of the agricultural policies (or lack thereof) that led to the Dust Bowl. It is also the only film in American history to be commercially produced by the government during a peacetime period. In 1999, the Library of Congress preserved the film because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance.

Note: There's an excellent book on the period called The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. If you are interested in the Dust Bowl I highly recommend it. And for all you young adult Flossers, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse gives an excellent depiction of this period.

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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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