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"The Botany of Desire" Documentary, TONIGHT at 8pm on PBS

Update: the entire documentary is now available online for free!

A new PBS* documentary, The Botany of Desire, premieres Wednesday night (tonight!) at 8pm on PBS stations throughout the US. It's based on the popular Michael Pollan book of the same name, and I urge you to carve out two hours (in most markets between 8pm - 10pm) on Wednesday night to watch it. The program is packed with science, history, and beautiful photography.

I've seen the film in advance, and I highly recommend it, particularly if you're interested in any of the four plants featured in it: tulip, marijuana, potato, and apple. By telling the stories of these plants, Pollan explains how in some ways the plants are manipulating us, rather than the other way around -- in the same way that flowers "use" bees to spread their pollen, these plants have "used" humans to spread themselves across the planet and out-compete other plants. One note: the program may not be suitable for young children, as there is use of the word "sex" (as applied to plants) and discussion of marijuana. It also might be pretty boring for the under-twelve set (despite beautiful flower photography), unless they're thoroughly nerdy.

Here's a preview of the documentary:

After the jump, I include some notes on each plant discussed in the documentary.

The Apple - Good for Booze AND for Eatin'

Apples arose in Kazakhstan, where bears would eat them and, uh, deposit the seeds as they went. But when people entered the picture, we began to spread the apple and its sweetness. Thus, the "biological strategy" of apples is to increase their sweetness, causing us to spread them around the globe. Humans have an innate desire for sweetness -- presumably because in nature, sweetness is rare and generally denotes lots of calories.

Although the Bible doesn't specify the fruit that was at the heart of so much trouble in the Garden of Eden, we assume it to be an apple -- even though it was probably a pomegranate due to geographic restrictions on where apples grow best. Then there's the rather fascinating discussion of Johnny Appleseed, whose real motivation was to bring alcohol (via hard cider) to pioneers, rather than tasty sweet apples. (Follow the link for some more info, all snagged from Pollan's book, on the man -- he was surprisingly rich for a dude who wore a tin pot on his head.)

Tulips

Tulips are examples of angiosperms, or flowering plants. The rise of the angiosperms brought sex (via flowers and pollen exchange) into the plant picture, and as Pollan says, "sex creates variation." The documentary thoroughly explains the Dutch speculative investment bubble known as Tulip Mania, which made tulips one of the most valuable commodities in the world. At the height of Tulip Mania, a single tulip bulb sold for the equivalent of what today would be $10-15 million! Tragically, some of the most prized tulips were made beautiful because of a virus that was slowing killing them -- which caused spectacular striped or "broken" flowers, but ultimately killed the plant. Pollan suggests that the tulip's biological "strategy" has been to develop a form of beauty that humans find very appealing, causing us to domesticate and grow it even to the point of financial ruin.

Cannabis

I won't say much about this section, as this is a family blog, but I can certainly say that this program treats the topic fairly and doesn't go nuts with it. There's an interesting discussion of how THC (the main "active ingredient") binds to receptors in the human brain that affect the brain's ability to remember and forget -- and Pollan wonders exactly how a plant would find a way to manipulate those human brain receptors in order to make cannabis such a widely-propagated plant today. It is a curious question, indeed -- how would a plant manage to just "happen" to have such a profound effect on humans? Again, Pollan wonders if this is a biological "strategy" in some sense.

The documentary includes extensive footage of legal (under state laws, though not federal law) cannabis growing operations -- you get an inside look into how medical marijuana is produced, and it's surprisingly complex. My favorite line: in describing how the farmers plant only female cannabis plants so they'll produce more THC-rich resin, Pollan describes the grow room as a room of "massive sexual frustration" -- all the female plants are desperately trying to catch some male pollen, producing more and more resin in their efforts.

Potatoes

The documentary takes us to South America, showing how the descendants of the Incas are still farming potatoes, and how potatoes traveled from South America to Europe via the Spanish Conquistadores. The potato was such a hugely productive crop (more food per acre than grain) that it transformed the Old World, enabling the industrial revolution. There's also much discussion of "The Lumper," the dominant strain of potato in Ireland that happened to be susceptible to a wind-spread fungus that destroyed Lumpers, causing the terrible Potato Famine. The famine killed one out of every eight people living in Ireland. Can you imagine that? Pollan suggests that the Potato Famine is a parable about the dangers of monoculture (planting a single type of plant) -- had the Irish planted a wider variety of potatoes, they might have had more that were resistant to the fungus that killed Lumpers.

Also discussed: how the fast food industry currently relies on a monoculture of the Russet Burbank potato to make the "long fries" used in McDonald's, to fill those tall red fry boxes; how that monoculture demands lots of pesticides; and how Monsanto is developing insect-repellant crops -- and what happens with those crops over the long term.

Full Blogger Disclosure

I have received an advance screener of this documentary from PBS, but have not been compensated in any way for this post. I just like PBS and documentaries, and think this is a great program -- and the book is highly recommended as well.

* = Note that the program is presented by KQED in San Francisco and produced by Kikim Media. But to myself and y'all, that's fancy talk for "PBS."

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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iStock

Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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Afternoon Map
European Space Agency Releases First High-Res Land Cover Map of Africa
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Land Cover CCI, ESA

This isn’t just any image of Africa. It represents the first of its kind: a high-resolution map of the different types of land cover that are found on the continent, released by The European Space Agency, as Travel + Leisure reports.

Land cover maps depict the different physical materials that cover the Earth, whether that material is vegetation, wetlands, concrete, or sand. They can be used to track the growth of cities, assess flooding, keep tabs on environmental issues like deforestation or desertification, and more.

The newly released land cover map of Africa shows the continent at an extremely detailed resolution. Each pixel represents just 65.6 feet (20 meters) on the ground. It’s designed to help researchers model the extent of climate change across Africa, study biodiversity and natural resources, and see how land use is changing, among other applications.

Developed as part of the Climate Change Initiative (CCI) Land Cover project, the space agency gathered a full year’s worth of data from its Sentinel-2A satellite to create the map. In total, the image is made from 90 terabytes of data—180,000 images—taken between December 2015 and December 2016.

The map is so large and detailed that the space agency created its own online viewer for it. You can dive further into the image here.

And keep watch: A better map might be close at hand. In March, the ESA launched the Sentinal-2B satellite, which it says will make a global map at a 32.8 feet-per-pixel (10 meters) resolution possible.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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