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A Dozen Pumpkins

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I have twelve orange pumpkins in my garden (and a couple of green ones). I didn't even plan to raise pumpkins this year! We had a bit of a warm spell in February, when I noticed there were some pumpkin sprouts in the compost pile, from the seeds of last year's Jack O'Lantern (which came from our garden). I rescued the sprouts and potted them up, keeping them safe and warm til May, then transplanted them into the garden. With that head start, the pumpkin crop is already beyond my wildest dreams. What am I going to do with a dozen pumpkins?

Pumpkins have grown in North and Central America for thousands of years. Native Americans used pumpkins for several types of dishes, such as pumpkin bread, soup, and candy. They dried pumpkin flesh and ground it up to preserve it for later use. They even used dried strips of pumpkin shell to weave into mats. The early settlers, including the Pilgrims, made pumpkin pies by removing the seeds and pouring milk, honey, and spices into a pumpkin, then baking it.

More on pumpkins and what they're for, after the jump.


My father told me the story of how his mother would pick pumpkin blossoms and serve them, dipped in batter and fried. Their neighbors got wind of this and brought over bags of groceries for the poor starving family that was reduced to eating flowers. Fried Pumpkin Blossoms are actually a delicacy. There isn't much to the flower itself, but it was an excuse to eat fried batter before funnel cakes became popular.

Pumpkin seeds may be one of the world's healthiest snacks. The components in pumpkin seeds may help prevent arthritis, osteoporosis, and prostate problems. Phytosterols in pumpkin seeds may lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cancer. Besides eating roasted pumpkin seeds as a snack by itself, you can add pumpkin seeds to stir-fried vegetables, top a salad with them, or grind them up and use as a nutritious food additive.

Pumpkins traveled from America to all parts of the world, where they've become part of other cuisines. Indians make Pumpkin Curries. Pumpkin is a main ingredient in this Fried Ravioli recipe. Thai Pumpkin Soup has some intriguing flavors. You can make a party meal out of a pumpkin, with a bit of time set aside. Mary and Frank made Curried Pumpkin Soup, Stuffed Pumpkin, and Toasted pumpkin Seeds for a group of 12. From one pumpkin.

You don't have to eat a pumpkin to enjoy it. Growing pumpkins has become a competitive activity. The largest pumpkin ever was grown by Ron Wallace in 2006 and weighted 1,502 pounds! However, this is the type of record that seems to be broken every growing season. Someone may have an even bigger monster pumpkin waiting to be measured this autumn. Award-winning pumpkins don't just happen. The tricks of the trade range from digging in the manure to limiting the vine to one pumpkin to performing first aid on a potential winner. The most I ever coddled my pumpkins is to put some pine needles under them to discourage rot.

The largest pumpkin pie ever weighed 2020 pounds (after baking). How did they bake it? They built a custom oven just for the event! This pie required 900 pounds of pumpkin flesh. I may make some pies, but only the standard size.

The first thing many folks think of to do with a pumpkin is to make a Jack O'Lantern for Halloween. The origin of the Jack O' Lantern is an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack." The story is somewhat involved, but the upshot is that neither God nor the devil wanted to take Jack after he died, so he must wander the earth with a lantern for eternity. The original lantern was an ember in a carved turnip, but a when immigrants brought the story to America, a pumpkin worked just fine. In modern times, Jack O'Lantern carving has turned into an art form.

Some strange things have been done with pumpkins in literature. Peter Peter (the pumpkin eater) kept his wife in a pumpkin shell. Cinderella's fairy godmother turned her pumpkin into a coach, but only til midnight. The headless horseman in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow used a Jack O'Lantern as a reasonable facsimile for his missing head. Jack Pumpkinhead was a character in L. Frank Baum's book The Marvelous Land of Oz and some of the following Oz books.

I could just turn over the pumpkins to my children, but only nine of them, because that would bring to life my favorite memnotic device for remembering the planets. "My very educated mother just served us nine pumpkins." It's no longer valid since Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status. There are a lot of things you CAN do with a pumpkin. Considering how many I have, there will be a lot of experimenting in my future.

Update from the comments: Marcus suggested any excess pumpkins should go Punkin Chunkin. Jason! found recipes for Roasted Pumpkin in The Shell (with applesauce), and Baked Stuffed Pumpkin (with lots of fruits). Thanks!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]