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What is the G20 and why is everyone so angry about it?

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This week's G20 summit meeting has put London on alert. City workers have been told to stay home or dress more casually to avoid being targeted by protestors, while police prepare for the thousands of G20 demonstrators expected to flood London's Canary Wharf. If you're seeing shades of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, where days of rioting resulted in more than 500 arrests and $2.5 million in damages to the city, so are the cops.

What Exactly is the G20?

The G20, more officially known as the Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, includes banking ministers from 19 of the world's wealthiest economies, plus the European Union. The group's inaugural meeting was held in 1999 in Berlin, to strengthen international financial architecture and to foster economic development on a global scale. The member countries represent 80% of the world's trade, two-thirds of the world's population, and roughly 90% of the global gross national product. A few of the countries include the US, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. Basically, the G20 summit gets all of the people who control economy in one room at least once (or in 2008's case, twice) a year, and asks them to make decisions about things. Whether or not that actually accomplishes anything isn't immediately evident. The existence of the meeting, however, provides a wonderful physical focal point for the masses of people angry at the current direction of the global economy.

Security Issues

g20 police.jpgThe meeting on April 2 is expected to draw more demonstrators than London has seen in a decade "“ and everyone from the Salvation Army and Save the Children to the Stop the War Coalition and the British Muslim Initiative is getting in on the action. What these demonstrators want, they say, is a more equitable global economic system that will put the needs of the people and the environment before the needs of big business.

Already, cops are worried that protestors will find ways to maximize the chaos, including blocking roadways with truckloads of sand and hanging effigies of bankers from signposts. Which is why the more than 1000 bankers, diplomats, and world leaders expected in London will be brought in by a fleet of 40 armed convoys. More than 2500 officers have been called in and all police will be in London April 1, the day before the meeting when protestors will march on the Bank of England and the US Embassy, among other sites. Security alone for the two days is expected to cost upwards of £10 million and the head of Scotland Yard has said that this is the largest operation the Metropolitan Police force has ever dealt with.

The Calm and the Chaos

It goes without saying that this year's meeting comes at a particularly sensitive time for the world, and people want answers. The global economic crisis has led to volatile situations everywhere: This week in France, the French manager of a 3M plant was barricaded in his office overnight by workers protesting plans to lay off half the staff. Additionally, millions of Parisians took to the streets of the capital to protest the government's handling of the economic crisis.

Waves of social disruption have been rolling around the world for the past few months. Earlier this week, vandals broke windows at the home of former Royal Bank of Scotland head, Sir Fred Goodwin; the group taking responsibility for the act has threatened further violence against "criminal bank bosses."

Amazingly, thus far, tension is not palpable in the streets of London. I say this from the relative calm of my Camden Town neighborhood, barely a stone's throw from downtown London. But the potential for disruption is vast "“ train and tube services are expected to be impacted, major thoroughfares shut down, and parks closed. I haven't bought a flak jacket yet, but I can't say that I haven't checked out prices on line.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]