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A corpse flower grows in Brooklyn

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Hold your nose! Our favorite rare and giant plant, the corpse flower or Amorphophallus titanum, could burst forth and stink up the air as early as today at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. A botanist once likened its fragrance to "a cross between ammonia fumes and hydrogen sulphide, suggestive of spoiled meat or rotting fish."

The flower was first discovered in Sumatra, its native terrain, in 1878 by Odoardo Beccari. It was an immediate sensation. An English artist assigned to illustrate the plant is said to have become ill from the odor, and governesses forbade young women from gazing upon its indelicate form. (Its formal name ends in "phallus" for good reason.)

You can watch an almost-live webcam of the plant threatening to flower here. (Thank goodness Smell-O-Vision didn't work out.) After the jump, an introduction to our other favorite bizarre plant, from our fact library.

Venus Fly Trap The Venus flytrap plant seems like it should be native to the rain forest or some other exotic location — but that's not the case. In fact, they are only found on the coastal plains of North and South Carolina.

Popular misconceptions about the Venus flytrap abound. Here are just a few:

* The plant can actively attack.

* The "trap" is a mouth that the plant uses to eat.

* The plant can keep a home clear of flies.

Here's the truth:

* Venus flytraps only capture prey small enough for them to catch, and certainly do not have the strength to harm any creature larger than a small insect. The traps only spring shut when tiny hairs on their insides are triggered; they do not freely move to "seek" prey.

* The "trap" part of the plant is in fact one of its leaves. Although it does distribute digestive juices to absorb nutrients from the prey it captures, it has no true mouth. After the trap has "sprung" four or five times, it wilts away and is soon replaced by a new leaf-trap.

* After being triggered falsely, it usually takes a full day for a trap to re-open. It can take a trap several days to digest an insect, which means that it's unlikely that it can do enough pest control in the average home to make a noticeable dent.

In the wild, the plant has become rare and anyone caught removing these plants from their natural habitat can be subject to heavy fines. Any Venus flytrap plants offered for sale should be grown privately in greenhouses or nurseries.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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