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Seeds in Space

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After picking up a new African Violet at the grocery store, I noticed a little tag on the plant -- the tag had a picture of the Space Shuttle, surrounded by flowers. Eh? A quick trip to Google, and I learned all about the Optimara EverFloris "Space Violet" program. From the site:

...the development of EverFloris Violets began in 1984, when Optimara launched 25,000 Optimara seeds into space aboard one of NASA's space shuttles. The seeds remained in space, orbiting the Earth, for nearly six years. (The Long Duration Exposure Facility, on which the seeds orbited, is shown at right. [Blogger's note:  see below for an LDEF link]) The program was conceived to test the effect of long-term exposure to cosmic radiation and lack of gravity. When the seeds were retrieved in 1990, many mutations soon became apparent. One such mutation resulted in a new characteristic which Optimara has dubbed 'multiflorescence.' This characteristic gives Optimara Violets an extraordinary abundance of flowers which never stop blooming. Compared with PMA standards, which define a finished African Violet as having five to seven open blooms, a multiflorescent Optimara variety will have at least 20 open blooms.

Um...wow? (Before we move on: more on the Long Duration Exposure Facility.) After consulting my friendly neighborhood geneticist, I was informed that mutations induced by extraterrestrial radiation are no different from mutations created in the lab. But, dude, SPACE.

More stories of seeds in space after the jump.

The Shenzhou VI space mission (China's second manned space expedition) carried sweet potato seeds to orbit in October 2006. The experiment resulted in a variety called the "Purple Orchid III" potato. Yum, space potato!

On the Apollo 14 mission, crewmember Stuart Roosa carried canisters containing 400-500 tree seeds of various types. The canisters got pretty close to the moon, staying with Roosa as he piloted the command module above the lunar surface. Upon returning to earth, the canisters burst open during the decontamination process, the seeds mixed, and were presumed no longer viable. However, most of the seeds germinated and many were planted around the world. NASA maintains a page listing the resulting "Moon Trees."

Further reading: a nice description of seeds in space from the Park Seed Company.

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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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