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The New Shapes of Garden Produce

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Last summer I found myself with a dozen pumpkins and no plans for what to do with them. I ended up giving some away, and using the rest for porch decorations. After a couple of hard freezes, they were ready for the compost heap from which they sprouted about a year ago. I retrieved some seeds (a messy job after the pumpkins go soft) because I have real plans for them this year. I'm going to experiment with geometric pumpkins!

The first time you see square watermelons, your instinct may shout "Photoshop!" but they are really square. Not a genetic variant, these are made the old-fashioned way. They are grown in boxes, and take the cubic shape gradually as they grow. It's a labor-intensive process, but the end result fits nicely in a refrigerator, and wastes no space in the truck. And they won't roll around! They've been growing them in Japan for years, because space is at a premium. The watermelons are at premium prices, too.

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To achieve such results, you have to have a proper box, made of tempered glass or durable plastic. Transparent boxes are best, or else you won't know exactly when to harvest, or even worse, waste your equipment on a rotten fruit! K-mac Plastics sells boxes especially designed to grow watermelons in, complete with proper drainage.

Keep reading for even stranger shapes

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If you can grow cubic watermelons, why not other shapes? The next phase would be pyramid-shaped watermelons. And if you can grow pyramids, why not face-shaped watermelons? It's been done.

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The idea can be carried over to other types of garden produce. Have you ever heard of a cubecumber? The shape is even more impressive when you slice them for unsuspecting guests.

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You can order a kit that helps you to grow your own square tomatoes. Grow Big Strange and Nasty Plants has five projects for kids, with a giant pumpkin project and an insect-eating plant as well as a cube tomato kit.

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You can also buy molds for your garden. Vegiforms offers two-piece plastic molds with faces on them. The garden elf shape and the "pickle puss" shape work with eggplants, zucchini, and other roundish vegetables. The diamond and heart shapes are longer, and produce the shape when you slice the cucumber or squash. There's even a mold in the shape of an ear of corn, so you can disguise one vegetable as another!

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Square pumpkins have been done. John Muller won the "most beautiful pumpkin" award for his box-shaped pumpkin in 2005.

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The greenhouse at Disney EPCOT in Florida grows vegetables in the shape of (what else) Mickey Mouse.

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This photo, supposedly of "miraculous" roots that were pulled from the ground in the shape of two people, has been making the rounds for quite some time, most recently at the Daily Mail. Skeptics say they couldn't have grown that way, that they must've been carved. But the filament roots seem real. Once you know how it's done, it seems simple (but isn't). With the right mold (possibly dolls), the real miracle is getting the roots to grow so large!

I saw instructions at one time about getting a pumpkin to grow inside a square milk carton, but it seems you would have to support the outside to keep the plastic from bending. Hmm. I may experiment with getting a tomato to grow in the shape of the inside of a jar first. However I decide to do it, rest assured I will take pictures for you!

Update: I tried molding pumpkins. Here are the results.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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