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Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

10 Things You Should Know About Spanish Moss

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Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

An image of beautiful Spanish moss hanging from majestic trees instantly reminds us of sultry summer days in the South. Prettier than kudzu, less formal than a palm tree, it is a symbol of nature at its most relaxed. But how much do you really know about Spanish moss?

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1. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not a moss at all. It is a bromeliad, which means it is in the same taxonomic family as pineapples and succulent house plants.

Infrogmation of New Orleans via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

2. Spanish moss isn't from Spain, either. It's native to Mexico, Central America, South America, the U.S., and the Caribbean. In the U.S., it grows from Texas to Virginia, staying in the moister areas of the South. Its preferred habitat is a healthy tree in tropical swampland.

Va. Dept. of Conservation & Recreation via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

3. Spanish moss was given its name by French explorers. Native Americans told them the plant was called Itla-okla, which meant “tree hair.” The French were reminded of the Spanish conquistadors’ long beards, so they called it Barbe Espagnol, or “Spanish Beard.” The Spaniards got back at them by calling the plant Cabello Francés, or “French Hair.” The French name won out, and as time went by Spanish Beard changed to Spanish moss.

Gentry George, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

4. Several tale tales are told of Spanish moss, like the one about Gorez Goz. According to the Beaufort County Library,

Gorez Goz was a bearded brute who bought a beautiful Indian maiden for a yard of braid and a mere bar of soap. The mere sight of the Spaniard so frightened the girl that she ran away from him. Gorez Goz chased right behind her, until at last he climbed up after her to the top of a tree. The maiden dove into the water and escaped, but Gorez Goz's beard got hopelessly entangled in the tree's branches. There he died, but we can still see his "greybeard" on trees throughout the Lowcountry—as the Spanish moss out on the limbs.

Jessica Cobb via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

5. Although Spanish moss grows on trees, it is not a parasite [PDF]. It doesn't put down roots in the tree it grows on, nor does it take nutrients from it. The plant thrives on rain and fog, sunlight, and airborne or waterborne dust and debris.

Bubba73 (Jud McCranie) via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

6. The surface of the Spanish moss plant is covered with tiny gray scales, which trap water until the plant can absorb it. The plant’s tissues can hold more water than the plant needs, to keep it going through dry periods. When the tissues plump up after a rain, Spanish moss appears more green. As the water is used, it returns to a gray hue.

7. The seeds of the moss have feathery appendages like dandelion seeds. This allows them to float through the air until they land on a good spot to grow: another tree.

Virginia State Parks staff via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

8. Spanish moss is more likely to propagate by fragmented pieces of plant called festoons. When a festoon is broken off and carried off by wind or birds (using it for nest material), it will begin to grow into a full plant if it lands in an acceptable place.

Linh Nguyen via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

9. Spanish moss doesn’t make good livestock feed, because it has almost no nutritive value. But it has a great number of other uses. Native American women used it for dresses in the past. It can be used as an arbor roof or to hang over a chain-link fence for privacy, but since it will only live in trees, you have to replenish the supply as the moss dies. American colonists mixed Spanish moss with mud to make mortar for their houses—some of which are still standing strong. Dried moss makes good tinder for fires, and you can make it into blankets, rope, and mattress filling. Mattresses filled with Spanish moss are noted for staying cool on a warm summer night. Because it soaks up and retains water, it is also used for garden mulch.

10. Many kinds of wildlife take advantage of Spanish moss. Birds use it to build nests. Frogs and spiders live in it. Boll weevils are especially drawn to Spanish moss, but moths are not, which is one reason it was preferred over wool in upholstery before synthetic fibers replaced both. Those who gather Spanish moss are warned against chiggers, but experienced collectors say chiggers only invade the moss after it touches the ground. Before tackling a mound of Spanish moss, you will want to be on guard for snakes that may be hiding in it.

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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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