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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
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technology
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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iStock
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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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