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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."

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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