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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Germinal, Floréal, Prairial: The Re-Imagined Spring of the French Revolutionary Calendar

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ah, the first day of spring. As snows begin to trickle away and green slowly reappears, spring brings with it the perennial promise of longer, warmer days. If you happened to live during the heady days of the French revolution, today would also mark the start of a spring month: Happy first day of Germinal!

Following the unseating of the French monarchy and the institution of the French Republic in 1792, cultural revisionism was all the rage. Those newly in power methodically stripped away the relics of France’s ancien régime and sought ways to modernize. During this era, the metric system and a decimal clock were introduced as more rational, symmetrical measures befitting a new era of progress. In 1793, after the revolutionaries rejiggered the calendar into 36 décades, or 10-day weeks (and 5 or 6 Sansculottides to keep the calendar in line with the sun), poet Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine was tasked with revising the names and designations of the Gregorian calendar for the French Republic. Revealing his revisions to the French National Convention that year, the poet presented the new calendar as “substituting for visions of ignorance the realities of reason, and for the sacred ... the truth of nature.”

A self-professed nature-lover, Fabre longed to bring France back to her agricultural roots, and he drew inspiration from natural and rural life for the new calendar. The 12 months were re-aligned to the year's natural intervals—the solstices and equinoxes (hence the arrival of spring ushering in a new month). Each season was subdivided into three months, and Fabre played on French and Latin roots to coin new names that evoked each month’s moment in the natural cycle. Painter Louis Lafitte was commissioned to provide illustrations for each month, and they beautifully display the pastoral symbols and themes.

Spring arrived with Germinal, a name that calls to mind sprouts, buds, and the germination of plant life.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

It was followed by Floréal, named for flowering blossoms.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

The next month, Prairial, was named for the cultivation of meadows.

Wikimedia commons // Public Domain

The months of the other seasons were given names like Messidor (from the Latin messis, meaning grain harvest), Vendémiaire (from an old Occitan word associated with the vineyard harvest), and Nivôse (drawing on the Latin nivosus, meaning snowy).

The new names didn't evoke positive images for everyone. When the rival British wrote their own translation of Fabre’s new names—“Messrs. Slippy, Drippy, Nippy, Showery, Flowery, Bowery, Hoppy, Croppy, Poppy, Wheezy, Sneezy, and Freezy”—they were unmistakably poking fun at his creations. Even more problematic was a glaring bias toward the region in and around Paris. Nivôse may have drawn light-hearted mockery in the French Mediterranean, but in the overseas territories, the calendar was downright chauvinistic. For a government proclaiming liberté and égalité, the calendar was a glaring insult to fellow citizens scattered among France’s holdings as far afield as Haiti and Mauritius. And even if Fabre’s ode to farm-life were received quaintly in France, the décades’ longer workweek and fewer rest days drew the ire of the country’s laborers. Add in a lasting discrepancy over the reckoning of leap year, and the calendar could hardly be considered a success.

In the end, the calendar suffered the same fate as the Republic. Having been crowned Emperor by the Catholic Pope, Napoleon swept the calendar to the wayside in 1806. Fabre wasn't around to see his revolutionary creation’s fate: Like many of his comrades, Fabre lost his head to the guillotine in 1794 as the revolution crumbled into the “reign of terror.”

Like Fabre, France’s new Emperor recognized the power of symbols in reinforcing systems of thought. The calendar was resigned to the footnotes of history. Ironically, one of its most lasting vestiges is in 18 Brumaire, the notorious date historians agree ended the republic and marked the ascension of Napoleon as head of state.

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