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Gorgeous Stitched Paintings Depict Environmental Destruction

Linda Gass was born to be an artist. She started creating as soon as she was old enough to hold a paintbrush; now, several decades later, Gass has fulfilled her childhood dream and then some. The Bay Area artist creates vibrant works of art on cloth, but they’re not just pretty pictures. Each of Gass’s stitched paintings, as she calls them, also serves as a stark illustration of the damage we’re causing our planet. 

Gass grew up in the 1970s, along with the first stirrings of modern environmentalism. By the time she reached college, the movement was in full swing. It was a “lifestyle,” she tells mental_floss. “It really opened my eyes.” 

But there were practical concerns to attend to. Gass’s parents wanted her to find a career that would support her, which made becoming an artist out of the question. She turned instead to math and computer science, eventually entering the software industry. And her parents were right: she was well-supported. But she wasn’t satisfied. So after years of saving up, she quit. 

“It was a really tough decision,” she says. “I had worked all my life to get to the point where I was in the software industry and it certainly paid well. All of my friends were there. So I had to really build up my courage to step away.”

The risky decision paid off. By 1998, Gass had found her way into textile art, and she never looked back. “I love working in textiles,” she says. “There’s something about fabric that’s very comforting. It’s beautiful and a pleasure to work with.” 

But her environmental roots were calling. It wasn’t long before Gass realized she could integrate her concerns into her art. Her first ecological piece, After the Gold Rush, was inspired by an aerial photograph of California’s Interstate 5.

Painting after painting followed, addressing themes of land use, water pollution, and human violence against the landscape. Yet each image is luminous and lovely to see. This is intentional, according to Gass: “I try to lure people in with that beauty to get them to confront the hard issues we face.” 

Click on each painting's title for a brief description.

Over the last two decades, Gass has expanded her repertoire to include sculpture and landscape installations. Last year, she was honored with a creative ecology residency in East Palo Alto, California. She chose to work on Cooley Landing, a public beach that had, until recently, been landfill. Understandably, the community was somewhat hesitant to spend time there. But through Gass’s free workshops, locals of all ages were able to discover the natural beauty and heritage of their new shoreline. 

East Palo Alto is something of an economic island, a low-income city in a sea of wealthy neighbors. The ecology residency had a dual purpose: introducing the city's residents to their new open space, and offering them an opportunity to engage in hands-on art and science. 

Gass and her workshop participants sketched the wildlife they saw and created a huge installation along the coast—thousands of bright-blue flags, marking where the waterline had once been.

Gass also used her students’ drawings to create a blank silk canvas for community members to paint.

“I overheard some of the girls while they were painting with the dyes, saying, ‘This is magical!’ Which is exactly how I felt about silk painting the very first time I tried it," she says. "It is this very magical, mesmerizing technique. It was so great to be reminded of how lucky I am to be able to work in this art form.”

Gass shows her work in galleries and museums around the country. To see her paintings in person this year, check out the Institute of Contemporary Art in San Jose, California, or the Euphrat Musem of Art in Cupertino, California. 

All images courtesy of Linda Gass. 

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
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]

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