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The Roots of Arbor Day

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Almost a century before the first Earth Day (in 1970), Nebraskans were celebrating their popular tree planting holiday, Arbor Day. Here's the story of the early conservationist experiment that helped bring 19th-century environmentalism into public view.

Treehuggers of the World, Unite!

Arbor Day is now observed throughout the U.S. and around the world, on dates that differ from region to region, according to bureaucratic technicalities and seasonal variations. Florida and Louisiana bury their seeds as early as the third Friday of January; in South Carolina it is the first Friday of December; and in Hawaii the beginning of November. National Arbor Day claims the last Friday of April, and most temperate states conform to the Feds. But it all began in Nebraska, the Tree Planter and Cornhusker State -- and before they fell in line with the National date, Nebraskans celebrated their great tree planting holiday on the birthday of its illustrious founder: April 22nd.

Julius Sterling Morton, the Conservative Conservationist

morgan.jpgJulius Sterling Morton (1832-1902) was a determined and industrious public man with a handsome mustache. Morton moved to Nebraska during its territorial days and served in the legislature, even spent a stint as governor. After Nebraska's entrance into the Union he continued pursuing public office -- efforts that generally failed but kept him in the game -- until Grover Cleveland appointed him Secretary of Agriculture in 1893. But that was after Morton had already made a name for himself in Nebraska as an agrarian reformer and tree planting advocate.

Julius Morton was hardly a "treehugger," according to the modern stereotype. He was a fervid conservative -- unwavering enough in this identity to establish a political journal titled, quite simply, The Conservative -- and a dedicated Democrat in an era when it was the Democratic party that ridiculed "elites," championed business interests, and resisted taxation.

As you can imagine, then, there was no Druidic spiritualism underlying Morton's enthusiasm for trees. During the late 19th century, American proto-environmentalism roughly split between the "conservationists," who promoted the sustainable development and utilization of natural resources, and "preservationists" like John Muir, who valued wilderness as a good in itself and opposed landscape blights like mines and dams whether they were "sustainable" or not. Morton's sensibility aligned with the conservationists: He was an enthusiastic proponent of railroads and rural development who also argued that stable progress must take environmental concerns into account -- and he considered deforestation one of the most significant threats to the well-being of Nebraska and the Nation.

How Trees Can Save America

Morton believed that more trees in Nebraska would offer relief from swift winds, secure topsoil, conserve moisture, discourage erosion, and generally improve the state's agriculture for current and future generations. So in early 1872, while working for a Nebraska newspaper, he proposed Arbor Day, "to urge upon the people of the state the vital importance of tree planting." That April saw the first observance of Morton's holiday in Nebraska. With a few cash rewards offered to goad the masses into picking up their shovels, about a million trees were planted in a single day, they say. The people loved the idea -- and many loved Morton for it. So in a short time, Nebraskans settled the date of their Arbor Day on Julius Morton's birthday, April 22.

Within decades the successful Arbor Day tradition had spread to other states. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt, who framed tree planting as a kind of nationalistic duty: "A people without children," he wrote, "would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless."

Drafting Preteens for Tree Planting

Morton was not alone in his arboreal enthusiasms. At the time there were a number of prominent activists specifically devoted to trees -- among them the Doctor of Divinity Birdsey Grant Northrop, who was out preaching the practical and aesthetic virtues of the tree well before Arbor Day. When news of Morton's tree planting day reached the East, Northrop grasped the torch and carried Arbor Day to the next level: schoolchildren. 

It was certainly sensible to recruit young backs and enthusiastic minds for altruistic unpaid labor; Northrop also considered it right and proper to teach our youth the scientific benefits of "arboriculture," since he believed, like Morton and Roosevelt, that the fate of the nation depended on the quality of its groves. After the success of Northrop's tireless advocacy, pointing out the many educational opportunities in tree planting, elementary schoolchildren have arguably constituted the very lifeblood of Arbor Day -- as is the case with so many non-bank holidays.

Arbor Day and the Fate of Civilization

Both Morton and Dr. Northrop were activists under the influence of George Perkins Marsh -- a devastatingly talented Vermonter who had already succeeded as a linguistic scholar (familiar with 20 languages), Congressman, public conservationist, minister to Turkey, and ambassador to the new Kingdom of Italy before publishing his best known work, Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, in 1864.

Man and Nature is considered the first book to systematically examine the long-term impact of human practices on the natural environment -- and, in a tone we're all familiar with in the Global Warming Era, Marsh predicted catastrophe. Long before Jared Diamond's bestselling Collapse, Marsh concluded that the fall of the Roman Empire was the result of poor land management techniques. And he feared that America could repeat the error, unless changes were made.

Marsh advocated reforestation as one vital component in a total overhaul of civilization's relation to nature. His work is credited as a foundational text that spread environmentalist sympathies (and the love of trees) beyond the literary Romantics and Transcendentalists and into the political realm. Arbor Day did the same.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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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]