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10 Artists Who Work in Trees

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Trees are exceedingly useful. They clean our air, cool our communities, and make the landscape beautiful. We use them for food, shade, building material, fuel, erosion control, barriers, and many other things. Some look at trees and see an art medium, a canvas to express something we wouldn't otherwise see. And there are quite a few different ways of using trees as art. Despite the title, these artists don't sit in trees and paint; they make art out of trees.

1. Tommy Craggs

British chainsaw sculptor Tommy Craggs recycles fallen trees or trees culled for woodland management. Some can be purchased; others are permanent installations carved from stumps. Craggs' work made the news in 2012 when people reported a "guerrilla sculptor" had carved three stumps in a forest in North Yorkshire. They were actually commissioned sculptures by Craggs. The stump pictured above is called King Hollow of The Abbey Road.

2. David Kemp

Ancient Woodsman

West Cornwall artist David Kemp is inspired by landscapes, whether natural or man-made. He recycles materials into new artworks. His tree sculpture called The Ancient Forester was commissioned by Grizedale Forest in North West England for their outdoor sculpture collection. Photograph by Flickr user Linda Hartley.

3. Joseph Wheelwright

Sculptor Joseph Wheelwright works in trees, stone, bones, and other natural materials. He casts some of his tree sculptures in bronze as well. See how he takes an entire tree and uses its natural shape to bring out a form. The sculpture shown here is called Pine Tree Figure.

4. Walter Channing

Walter Channing began his art career when he rescued wood from building demolitions because he hated to see good wood go to waste. From these materials, he made furniture and artworks. This later led to using discarded tree trunks as an art medium. Oh, and he's also the founder of Channing Daughters Winery, which uses one of Channing's upside-down tree sculptures on their wine labels.

5. Axel Erlandson

Circus Tree

Axel Erlandson was a pioneer in tree shaping, or taking living trees and making them grow into artworks. He was a farmer in California and began this hobby in 1925. He opened a tourist attraction in 1947 called The Tree Circus, where he transplanted his tree sculptures. Many of his trees still exist, although Erlandson died in 1964. You can see them at what is now Gilroy Gardens theme park in California, or see more pictures here. Photograph by Flickr user Jay Peeples.

6. John Krubsack

John Krubsack made furniture from wood, but in 1907, he started an experiment to see if he could grow a chair instead of putting one together. He planted 32 box elders from seed and grafted the trunks together as they grew. Krubsack shaped the trees for seven years until a chair shape emerged, and only four sets of tree roots remained  as the legs of the chair. He "harvested" the completed chair after eleven years. "The Chair That Grew" was exhibited at the 1915 World's Fair and was featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not, and is now displayed at Noritage Furniture in Embarrass, Wisconsin.

7. Peter Cook and 8. Becky Northey

Pooktre Tree Shapers is the collaborative tree art of Peter Cook and Becky Northey. They grow plum trees that are shaped into functional furniture, such as tables and chairs, and artworks that are shaped like people or abstract designs. Some are specifically grown to be harvested and sold; others are permanent living sculptures.

9. Richard Reames

Richard Reames is a arborsculptor who shapes trees, promotes the art of tree shaping, and teaches tree shaping. Reames' website includes some how-to pages, such as how to grow your own chair. In the pictures above, he built a "branch office" by adding a platform to living trees and shaped the growing branches into walls around the floor.

10. Tim Knowles

Tim Knowles is a multimedia artist. In 2005-2006, he designed a project called Tree Drawings, in which trees themselves created art! Knowles attached drawing implements to the branches of various types of trees and set an easel nearby. The action of the wind and weather aided the trees in their drawing. Then each finished work was exhibited next to a photograph of the tree in the process of drawing.

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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]