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6 of the Oldest Trees in the World

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Roughly 3,500 years ago—right about the time the Ancient Phoenicians were hitting their stride—a tiny cypress tree, no bigger than a fist, sprouted in the swamplands of Central Florida. 3,500 years later, in 2012, that very same cypress burned to the ground.

Known as “The Senator,” this majestic, 118-foot tall tree was one of the oldest organisms in the world. Over the course of its long life, it survived hurricanes, disease and logging sprees, serving as a landmark for Seminole Indians, a tourist attraction for curious Victorians, and a spiritual epicenter for pilgrims hoping to bask, literally, in the shade of history. Investigators later charged a 26-year-old woman with setting the fire.

Here are some of the world’s oldest and most amazing trees that remain.

1. Old Tjikko (Sweden)

Karl Brodowsky/Wikimedia Commons

The world’s oldest known living tree sprouted sometime during the last Ice Age, roughly 9,550 years ago. This 16-foot spruce in the Dalarna province of Sweden may look more like a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, but don’t be fooled: this little guy’s root system got started back when the British Isles were still connected to Europe by an ice bridge. According to Wired, geologist Leif Kullman, who discovered the tree, named it after his dead dog.

2. Methuselah (California)

Oke/Wikimedia Commons

Methuselah, a bristlecone pine tree from California’s White Mountains, is thought to be almost 5,000 years old—and the oldest non-clonal tree in the world. The exact location of the gnarled, twisted Methuselah is a Forest Service secret, for its protection (that might not be it above). In 1964, a slightly older tree by the name of Prometheus was accidentally felled by a scientist who didn’t realize the tree was as old as it was.

3. Llangernyw (North Wales)

Emgaol/Wikimedia Commons

Llangernyw, a lush, 4,000-year-old yew tree, was inducted into a list of 50 Great British Trees by the UK Tree Council in 2002, which, as far as tree honors are concerned, is a pretty big deal. Llangernyw was planted in what is now a North Wales churchyard way back when the Egyptian Pyramids were still considered a new development.

4. Zoroastrian Sarv (Iran)

The Zoroastrian Sarv, a tree in central Iran, is an Iranian National Monument. The 4,000-year-old cypress took root right about the time ancient people in Central Asia were inventing wheels with spokes, and over the course of its long life, witnessed the advent of modern human civilization.

5. Fitzroya Cupressoides (Chile)

© Galen Rowell/CORBIS

Fitzroya Cupressoides, a type of tall, skinny evergreen in the Andes Mountains, are some of the oldest trees in the world. Known commonly as the Alerce, many of these soaring evergreens have been logged in the last two hundred years, but scientists have been tracking and protecting one specific tree, which is thought to be more than 3,600 years old.

6. The Tree of One Hundred Horses (Sicily)

LuckyLisp/Wikimedia Commons

The Tree of One Hundred Horses, this enormous chestnut near the Mount Etna volcano in Sicily, is thought to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. Its inimitable name comes from an old legend where 100 drenched knights and their sopping steeds sought refuge from a thunderstorm beneath the tree’s protective branches. It’s almost believable: This truly massive tree holds the world record for girth, clocking in at 190 feet in circumference—nearly the length of a hockey rink.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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