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11 Easy Ways to Be Greener on Earth Day

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Kermit got it all wrong: It is easy being green. Going green doesn’t have to mean committing to a 10-mile walk to work or abiding by "if it’s yellow, let it mellow"—you can make a difference by making small adjustments that add up to big change. Here are 11 ideas to get you started.

1. USE YOUR DISHWASHER.

It may seem counterintuitive, but your dishwasher is way more energy- and water-efficient at washing dishes than you are, as long as you’re running a full dishwasher. According to one German study, dishwashers use half of the energy and a sixth of the water, not to mention less soap. So, don’t feel guilty about skipping the sink of sudsy water, or about not pre-rinsing before loading up the machine—you’re actually doing the environment a favor by firing up your dishwasher.

2. SWITCH TO ONLINE BILL PAY.

Not only is it convenient to pay all of your bills with a click or two, it’s also environmentally friendly. One study found that the average U.S. household receives 19 bills and statements from credit card companies, banks, and utilities every month. By switching to online statements and online bill pay, each American household could save 6.6 pounds of paper per year, save 0.08 trees, and not produce 171 pounds of greenhouse gasses. Not bad for simply clicking a few "receive online statements" boxes.

3. OPT OUT OF JUNK MAIL.

While you’re paring down the amount of stuff that arrives daily in your mailbox, visit Catalog Choice to opt out of various mailers you don’t want to receive. So far, the nonprofit organization says they have saved more than 500,000 trees, over one billion pounds of greenhouse gas, more than 400 million pounds of solid waste, and approximately 3.5 billion gallons of water.

4. PLANT A TREE OR TWO.

Planting trees is obviously great for the environment, but if you’re strategic about it, it can help you reduce your energy costs and use less fossil fuel. According to ArborDay.org, planting large deciduous trees on the east, west, and northwest sides of your house can shade and cool your home during the warmer months, even slashing your air conditioning costs by up to 35 percent.

5. TURN OFF THE TAP.

If you leave the tap running while you tend to your pearly whites, you’re wasting approximately 200 gallons of water a month. Just turn the tap on when you need to wet your brush or rinse, instead of letting H20 pour uselessly down the drain. The same goes for anyone who shaves with the water running.

6. GO THRIFTING.

Take some advice from your old pal Macklemore and hit up some thrift shops—and that goes for whether you’re getting rid of clutter or adding more to your home. Buying and donating to thrift stores and second-hand shops means you’re recycling, supporting your local economy, and saving money. In fact, by some estimates, every item of clothing donated reduces 27 pounds of carbon emissions.

7. GET A HOUSEPLANT.

And grab a little guy for your desk at work, too. House plants and desk plants have been proven to improve your mood and raise productivity, but they also purify the air by removing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in homes and offices. They also absorb carbon dioxide and increase the humidity. Low-maintenance plants include pothos, spider plants, jade, various succulents, and peace lilies.

8. GET SCRAPPY.

Cut up paper that has only been used on one side and use it to scribble reminders, notes, grocery lists, etc. Or flip it over for any kids you know to color on. (You can color on it, too, if you want.)

9. PUT YOUR CAFFEINE TO WORK.

Your coffee likely traveled thousands of miles to arrive in your pantry, so get good use out of it. Use your grounds to mulch plants that love acidic soil, like roses, evergreens, and rhododendrons. If your garden problems tend to be less about the dirt and more about the things that live in it, certain garden denizens hate coffee—namely ants, slugs, and snails. Sprinkle grounds in problem areas to deter them.

10. ENLIGHTEN YOURSELF.

Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs—the spiral light bulbs) may cost more upfront, but they’ll save up to $57 over the life of the bulb. More importantly, they use 70 percent less energy than traditional bulbs and installing them is as easy as screwing in a light bulb. (Insert joke here.)

11. MAKE TRACKS.

You don't have to cut out your daily driving entirely, but when you only have a few blocks, or perhaps just a mile or two to travel and don't need to transport anything bulky, consider walking or hopping on your bike. Walking on those short trips generates less than a quarter of the greenhouse gasses that are emitted by driving the same distance.

All images via iStock.

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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