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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

How Olive Oil Might Save Our Oldest Buildings

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Wikimedia Commons/Thinkstock/Bryan Dugan

When the builders of York Minster—a huge gothic cathedral in a northern U.K. city—set to work, they weren’t thinking about the road traffic that would pass feet from its front door, spilling exhaust fumes onto its magnesian limestone walls. After all, when work began in 1230, even a horse-drawn cart was a luxury few knew.

And they weren’t thinking about the slowly corrosive rain caused by the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, either. Water, and the acidity in rain (about half of each month the city sees more than 0.1 millimeters of rainfall) can wear on even the best-built buildings. Those charged with building preservation try to keep moisture out of old buildings while allowing them to air from the inside to prevent decay. That’s easier said than done.

Conservationists need to ensure they don’t compromise the building’s look or structure; to do either would be to defeat the point of preservation in the first place. It’s easy enough to drape a waterproof tarpaulin over our oldest buildings, but that hides them from view. Something that keeps the building looking as it did when first built is the end goal of those involved in the preservation of historical sites, and those involved in York Minster’s upkeep have hit upon a novel solution. It’s likely to be found in your kitchen cupboard.

Virgin or extra virgin?

Olive oil drove the Greek and Roman empires. The remnants of ancient amphorae that once held the stuff have surfaced in all four corners of the world, showing the vibrant trade that existed thousands of years ago. Throughout history it’s been a medicine, a sacred liquid and a cooking ingredient—and we produce 3.4 million tonnes (3.75 million tons) of it every year.

Its chemical construction is what makes olive oil so useful for those trying to save buildings from disrepair. The liquid we use to cook with contains between 55 and 83 percent oleic acid, a key ingredient that has the unique quality of being able to let water out from the limestone it covers, while preventing water coming in with a coating a single molecule thick.

Oleic acid is a long chain fatty acid, with a great number of hydrocarbons all lined up in a row—the perfect hydrophobic (water-repellent) chemical construction.

The natural solution

Other solutions had been tried before: The Minster had been coated in other laboratory-made hydrophobic solutions, which stopped the water coming into the stone, but weren’t porous enough to let any pollutants already embedded in the walls come out. Before that, those charged with keeping the Minster healthy had tried linseed oil, though they stopped when they realised they were staining the bright white frontage.

For all it discolored the Minster, linseed oil did work. Which is why Dr. Karen Wilson, a reader in physical chemistry at the University of Cardiff, began experimenting with olive oil-based solutions to the problem of natural decay. By combining oleic acid with a Teflon-like compound called 1H,1H, 2H,2H-perfluoro-decyltrimethoxysilane, Wilson and her team think they’ve managed to find the perfect preservation tool: something that makes the Minster watertight while ensuring its architectural beauty isn’t compromised.

And it’s all because of olive oil.

Wilson’s excited about the solution’s potential. “Such coatings could have a significant impact on stone conservation,” she writes in her academic paper (check it out here), “affording readily applied, conformal barriers able to protect historic limestone from weathering by gas phase and particulate sulfur oxide pollutants.”

The people who built York Minster likely thought their handiwork would be protected by God and stand forevermore. Simple science—and the relentless march of technology—caused it to begin tarnishing. Now the advancement of scientific research might be able to stay the decline in our greatest buildings, using one of the world’s oldest commodities (and cooking ingredients).

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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