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16 Amazing Stories About Trees

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Thinkstock

In honor of Arbor Day, we bring you lifesaving wood, the truth about cork, and a refuge for swamped spiders. Who knew trees had so many great stories to tell?

1. Plant Your Own Holiday

Jack Hudson

Newspaper editor Julius Sterling Morton wasn’t afraid to think big. In 1855, he started building a modest four-room house in Nebraska City, Neb., that later expanded into a 52-room White House lookalike. But it was only after his mansion was finished that Morton realized he had a problem. His spacious new digs sat on a desolate prairie, which made it hard to attract neighbors.

So Morton went to work planting trees. Lots of them. To gin up a little help, the newspaperman proposed a holiday on which all Nebraskans would join in. The State Board of Agriculture loved the idea, and on April 10, 1872, Nebraskans planted more than a million trees! The tradition became so popular that in 1885, Nebraska made Arbor Day a legal holiday, even tweaking the date to April 26, Morton’s birthday. Soon the rest of the country was celebrating Morton’s brainchild, and today, tree planting days are celebrated around the world.

Morton’s effort earned him and his family some good karma too. He went on to serve as secretary of agriculture under Grover Cleveland, and his son, Joy, founded the Morton Salt Company.

2. The Wood That Fights Fire

Alex Eben Meyer

As gold-crazed settlers flocked to the Bay Area in the 19th century, they needed lumber to build their homes and mines. And what better way to get a lot of wood at once than toppling an enormous redwood? Little did they know the wood had a greater legacy in store.

In April 1906, San Francisco awoke to a major earthquake. As if the rocking buildings weren’t bad enough, residents were soon battling massive fires that threatened to consume the city. But the city didn’t go up in smoke for one reason: redwoods.

Though the fire spread for three days, a curious thing happened when it hit a building made from the mighty tree. While not totally fireproof, the redwood’s low resin content and porous grain allow it to take on moisture, which makes it far more flame-resistant than woods like pine. As one reporter noted, “[I]n all principal directions, the fire was finally stopped in the very midst of frame redwood buildings.”

3. Should You Put a Cork in It?

Corbis

If the “it” in question is wine, absolutely! Cork is the most environmentally friendly way to seal a bottle. While aluminum and synthetics can be recycled, that process requires a lot of energy. Harvesting cork, on the other hand, is much greener and doesn’t begin until after a cork oak tree’s 25th birthday. Workmen carefully peel off the outer layers of bark using special axes, making sure not to harm the trees so that the cork can be manually harvested again after a decade of rest. As the cork regenerates, the trees continue to play a valuable role in the forest’s ecosystem by helping to clean the air. If you compare the impact, an aluminum wine cap generates 24 times more emissions than natural cork.

4. A Real Corker!

Corbis

For years, herders and swagmen in the Australian Outback had to fight a particularly pesky foe: the blowfly. While harmless, the flies had an irritating habit of swarming around people’s faces. That is, until the Australians began fighting back. Before the days of bug spray, Aussies used a bit of string to dangle small pieces of cork from the brims of their hats. The swaying wood was just enough to keep the blowflies at bay, and the absurd headwear joined the Foster’s can and Paul Hogan as an unmistakable icon of Australian culture.

5. Cork by the Numbers

13 billion: Annual production of wine corks, mostly from the Iberian Peninsula
30,000: Number of people whose jobs rely on harvesting and processing cork
9 to 12 years: Time it takes a cork oak to regrow its cork following a harvest

6. Bugging Out with Osage Oranges

Jingyao Guo

Osage orange fruit are mildly poisonous, so you won’t want to chomp through their tough, brainlike skin. But you might want to toss one under your bed. These “hedge apples” have historically been thought to ward off spiders. And while there’s no evidence that the fruit sends arachnids running, studies have shown that osage oil does repel flies and cockroaches.

7. Kapok Trees Float Your Boat

Jingyao Guo

The thorny kapok may appear prickly, but it’s got a soft side too. The tropical tree’s seed pods are packed with a buoyant, water-resistant fiber that’s just one-eighth the weight of cotton. Before the advent of synthetic foams, kapok fibers were a crucial ingredient in all-natural life preservers, including the ones used by G.I.s in World War II.

8. The Magic of Holly Wood

Jingyao Guo

You were right to hide those slightly toxic holly berries from your children and pets, but you might want to make the tree available to your local Scotsman. Holly was among the original woods placed on a lathe to make Great Highland bagpipes. Although it fell out of fashion in the late 18th century, you can still pay the piper with a holly branch.

9. Not Getting Your Goat

Jingyao Guo

Spanish explorers planted sweet Valencia oranges on the Caribbean island of Curaçao hoping they’d found a citrus paradise. Instead, the poor soil and climate yielded the laraha, a bitter orange-like fruit that even goats refused to eat. Curaçao’s residents stood by their gross fruit, though. A little experimentation showed that once dried and soaked in alcohol, the laraha made the pleasant citrus liqueur drinkers know as Curaçao.

10. Bart Simpson’s Favorite Tree

Jingyao Guo

Every prepubescent hellion has the same favorite species of tree, the horse chestnut. Why? Horse chestnuts’ round, sturdy hulls make them the perfect slingshot ammunition. But nature’s pellets have the potential for good too. When they’re not bombarding playmates, the nuts can be used to make a solution for whitening linens and removing spots.

11. Tangled Webs

UK Department for International Development

Spiders build the best tree forts! During the summer of 2010, parts of Pakistan received 10 years’ worth of rainfall in a single week. As the monsoon waters rose, millions of local spiders decamped to higher ground in the surrounding trees and went about their normal business of spinning webs. When the flood finally receded, the ghostly, web-swaddled trees stayed behind.

Luckily for the Pakistanis, these trees weren’t just an awesome photo opportunity. Visiting health authorities noted that the webs helped reduce mosquito populations despite all the stagnant water in the area. Apparently, the bugs were as drawn in by the webs as we are!

12. The Bodhi Tree

Alex Eben Meyer

The Bodhi Tree, located in the northern Indian state of Bihar, is sacred to Buddhists, who believe that the Buddha achieved enlightenment in the shade of this heart-shaped fig tree. But since waiting for enlightenment is a tall order, many Buddhists request something faster. And more tangible. If you see strings dangling from the Bodhi’s branches, each strand represents a pilgrim’s wish.

13. The Holy Thorn

Alex Eben Meyer

In Glastonbury, Somerset, England, grows the Holy Thorn, a hawthorn tree that allegedly sprang from the staff of Saint Joseph of Arimathea, when he struck his stick against the ground during a visit in the first century CE. While the common hawthorn blooms just once a year, this tree blooms a second time near the winter solstice, a rebirth that makes it a favorite of pagans and devout Christians alike.

14. Walleechu

Alex Eben Meyer

Charles Darwin studied this small, thorny tree, located in Argentina, that was said to be the embodiment and altar of the great god Walleechu. Worshipers who make offerings by pouring liquor into a hole at the tree’s base or blowing cigar smoke toward Walleechu’s branches are supposedly blessed with prosperity and horses that never tire out. Conestoga drivers, take note.

15. France’s Coolest Treehouse/Church

Herve Champollionakg Images

Locals in the French village of Allouville-Bellefosse swear that William the Conqueror prayed at the base of this legendary tree before heading out on his famous conquest. While the tree isn’t quite that old, it’s no spring chicken. At 800 years, it’s France’s oldest known tree. It almost met a grim fate when lightning struck it in the 17th century, gutting its trunk. Not wanting to let a little lightning ruin a perfectly good tree, two monks began sprucing up the hollowed interior. Before long, they’d built a full shrine to the Virgin Mary, complete with a small chapel. The tree became known as Le Chene Chapelle, the Chapel Oak. Later additions include a second chapel and an external staircase.

When churches fell on the chopping block during the French Revolution, the tree stopped being a chapel and became a “Temple of Reason.” Efforts to maintain the aging tree have given it something of a Tim Burton feel. Shingles now cover parts of the trunk where the bark has fallen off. Poles prop up parts of the tree that might otherwise tumble. Despite the increasingly tenuous construction, worshipers still gather in the chapel for Mass twice a year!

16. How to Live Forever

Corbis

At the ripe old age of 4,800, Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine, may just be the world’s oldest living thing. What’s its secret? The bristlecone’s dense, hard wood is nearly impenetrable for insects and fungi, so there’s no chance of rotting. And the inhospitable mountaintops it lives on scare away wimpier plants that would compete for resources.

So where can you see Methuselah? You can’t. Its exact location in California’s Inyo National Forest is kept secret to keep vandals at bay. In other words, Methuselah’s been placed in the forestry equivalent of the witness protection program!

BONUS: 8 Fun Facts about Trees

Madagascar’s raffia palm has the world’s longest leaves: Each one measures more than 70 feet!

Two regiments of American foresters served in France during World War I to supply the Allies with necessary lumber.

When Canada adopted its flag in 1964, 2136 of the submitted designs contained a maple leaf; another 389 featured beavers.

The Korowai people of Papua live in 130-foot-high treehouses as protection from a neighboring tribe of headhunters.

Although it’s known as the Spruce Goose, the Hughes H-4 Hercules was mostly made of birch.

Before becoming a famous showbiz cowboy, Clint Eastwood worked as a lumberjack.

Cones of the Coulter pine can be up to 12 inches long and weigh five pounds! Workers in Coulter pine groves are told to wear hard hats.

When Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wasn’t planting trees, he was a missionary of the Swedenborgian Church.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.

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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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