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The Lasting Gifts of the Civilian Conservation Corps

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In 1933, America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Unemployment stood at around 25%. As soon as he took office, President Franklin Roosevelt pushed for an employment program called the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He ran a similar program as governor of New York, and hoped a national program would get young men out of the city slums, give them something productive to do, and improve conservation and access to the country's natural resources all at the same time. Six weeks later, the first CCC camp was set up. The U.S. Army was mobilized to transport the workers and supervise the camps. Unskilled and unemployed men between the ages of 17 and 23, whose families were on government relief, flocked to sign up. The pay was $30 a month, $25 of which was sent to the worker's parents. The $5 that was left seemed quite enough, as food, shelter, clothing, and medical care were provided by the government. Later, a category for unemployed veterans was added, which opened the way for older men with families to participate.

Before the program ended in 1942, over 2.5 million men worked under the CCC. The program was a hit with the public from the beginning. Participants became healthier with regular meals. They also gained confidence, work skills, and travel experience. The money sent back home boosted the economy. The mayor of Chicago credited the program with a drop in the crime rate. As success was seen, the program was expanded and modified. But it was expensive, and support for the CCC waned as the economy improved. The need for manpower in World War II ended the need for the large unemployment program, but it may have died on its own anyway. The program succeeded spectacularly in its short term goals. In the long term... well, that's what this post is really about.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was largely built by the CCC. Workers from 23 camps built hundreds of miles of roads through difficult territory, plus bridges, buildings, fire towers, and campgrounds. They also planted trees and renovated historic architecture in the area. One of the CCC projects you can still visit in the park is the Rockefeller Memorial pictured here. Photograph by Wikipedia user Billy Hathorn.

Seventy+ years later, the stonework at Gooseberry Falls State Park in Minnesota still holds tight. The stone features referred to as "the wall" or "the castle" were built by the young men of the CCC. They were recruited as "unskilled" workers, but after this project, they had beaucoup stonemason skills.

Grand Canyon National Park saw a lot of improvements in the 1930s. CCC workers built the Community Building, constructed stone walls and roads, and cut and improved hiking trails.

Big Ridge State Park Lake

When the Tennessee Valley Authority (another New Deal infrastructure project) built Norris Dam in East Tennessee, the CCC followed and built three state parks to take advantage of the new Norris Lake. These were Cove Lake State Park, Norris Dam State Park, and Big Ridge State Park, pictured here. Photograph by Flickr user Mike_tn.

Fort Parker State Park in Limestone County, Texas, was created in 1935. The CCC built the park's facilities and constructed the dam that made Fort Parker Lake. They also rebuilt the nearby fort that the park is named for, in time to celebrate its centennial in 1936. You can still visit the reconstructed fort today.

Diablo Lookout Tower

The State of California had already designated thousands of acres as public lands for parks, but lacked the money to develop those areas for the public to actually use before the CCC sent thousands of workers in the 1930s. They built many structures that are still being used, such as the Mount Diablo State Park Lookout Tower shown here. Photograph by Flickr user Airplane Journal.

Reforestation is one of the lasting legacies of the CCC. Overfarming and industry had destroyed or damaged many forests in the early part of the 20th century. This led to erosion problems, flooding, and loss of topsoil. The CCC planted 3 billion trees across the country, including those in 101,154 acres of the Manistee National Forest in Michigan.

Manistee

The Manistee National Forest is just one of many that owe their present state to the CCC. Photograph by Flickr user lahvak.

Dr. Norman Borlaug

One of the many of the distinguished alumni of the CCC is 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. Another Depression-era program, National Youth Administration, enabled Borlaug to attend college, where he studied forestry. He helped finance his education by working for the CCC beginning in 1935. That job, working with young men who would otherwise be starving, affected his ambitions, and set him on the road to developing crops that would alleviate food shortages throughout the world. In his later life, he was credited with saving "over a billion lives." Photograph by Flickr user khalampre.

This is far from an exhaustive list of the projects the CCC completed that we still enjoy today. Your local state park is probably another that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps almost 80 years ago.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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