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The $23,000 cataloupe, and other expensive melons

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From gas to corn and other basic foodstuffs, it seems like the price of everything is on the rise these days. That's why it seems incomprehensible to most Westerners that last month a pair of cantaloupes sold at a Japanese auction for $23,500 -- and that other fruits which are relatively cheap other places in the world are outrageously expensive in Japan. Of course, the five-figure fruits were bought at a charity auction -- but even the price of non-auction fruit will leave your jaw on the floor. At Senbikiya, at upscale shop in Tokyo, two bunches of grapes will make your wallet about $40 lighter, and the prices only go up from there. And a few weeks ago, a rare black watermelon made headlines around the world by selling for $6,100. So we know the prices are insane -- but why? The Times had one answer:

"Japan is probably the only country in the world where you have fruit as a gift concept," said Ushio Ooshima, a director at Senbikiya, whose main store in Nihonbashi alone sells 40 to 50 high-priced melons a day and as many as 200 a day during the mid-year and end-year gift-giving seasons. At Senbikiya, "99 percent of the purchases here are for gift," Ooshima said. In the culture of gift giving, a melon may be offered as a special present to an important client, to a person to whom a debt of gratitude is owed, or to a sick friend as a get-well gesture.

So there are regular grocery-chain melons and fruits -- which at $5 for a honeydew still sounds pricey to Americans, but is nowhere near the stratospheric range of a $100 melon, which are specially-farmed as high-end gift fruits. So what's the difference?

Most Japanese will tell you that there's no comparison:

"They are definitely different, from the scent of it to the texture of it," said Shigeko Hoshi who lives in Tokyo and occasionally eats the expensive fruit when her family receives one as a gift. "The sweetness is exquisitely balanced with the sourness of it." They also have to look the part: "perfectly round with the mesh-like surface pattern impeccably even," according to Tsuneo Anma, general secretary of a growers' group based in Fukuroi.

Naturally, the most prized melon plants are as fussed over as an ancient Bonsai tree. They're farmed in specially-designed greenhouses in select locations throughout Japan, in which the air is conditioned and the moisture level of the soil is carefully moderated. Melon vines are trimmed to allow only three melons to grow, and when they reach a certain level of maturity, two of the three melons are cut off to allow the supreme melon all the nutrients that the vines have to give.

"People go, 'What a difference does a gift melon make,"' Ooshima said. "People usually don't eat the very best for themselves. They set it aside for others as a gift," which is the very essence of Japanese gift-giving.

Source: The International Times.
Photo via Sarah&Gen.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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