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Do-It-Yourself Molded Pumpkins

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Those of you who have been around the mental_floss blog for a while know I grow pumpkins in my garden. Last spring I wrote about how gardeners are using molds to grow vegetables in odd shapes, and I said I was going to try that myself. Well, I did.

But you also know that I don't like to spend money on new equipment when I could possibly use something I already have.
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So instead of buying a special mold made for shaping produce, I assembled some things I had stashed in the basement that could possibly be used for molds. Continue reading for the story of my garden experiment.

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Procrastination is my middle name. June came around before I knew it! I could wait no longer to start my experiment. I had planted two varieties of pumpkins this year: regular Jack-o-Lanterns and miniature ornamental pumpkins. The miniatures appeared overnight, looking mature already. Hoping they would grow some more, I stuck the little pumpkins in glass pickle jars and one small flowerpot.

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It became immediately clear that they wouldn't stay in the molds without help. Duct tape is the answer. Whatever the question, duct tape is always the answer.

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The larger pumpkins were very immature in June. I found three that were good prospects for experimentation and placed them in 1) a basket, 2) a plastic flower pot, and 3) a ceramic flowerpot. Unfortunately, the June pictures of 1) and 2) seem to have disappeared.

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The great thing about growing pumpkins is that normally you can pretty much ignore them for several months; just make sure you don't step on and crush too many. As the summer wore on, the large pumpkin in the basket rotted away. The miniature pumpkins stopped growing. I should have caught them earlier and used much smaller molds. The two remaining large pumpkins swelled and filled their containers. The plastic was no match for a growing pumpkin.

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By October, the neighborhood dogs had carried away two of the miniature pumpkins, jars and all. I retrieved one from the retrievers. The miniature that I had installed in a ceramic pot had rotted away. It courteously left behind seeds for next year.

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The other miniatures had grown just a tiny bit since I put them in jars. My daughter joked about ships in bottles, but she managed to wiggle them out without breaking the jars. No difference in shape at all.

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The regular size pumpkin in the plastic flowerpot had matured and completely split the plastic, but the shape was quite different from a natural pumpkin. I tore the plastic away to see my ...masterpiece. Heh.

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The pumpkin in the ceramic flowerpot, however, grew without breaking or even cracking its container. And it really took the shape well!

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The pumpkin wasn't oriented exactly straight in its container. The brown spot to the right is the actual blossom end. The spot in the middle is where the pumpkin grew out a bit into the hole in the bottom of the flowerpot. Because of this, I will have to make a doughnut cushion of sorts so the pumpkin can stay upright. Yes, I will have the strangest Jack-o-Lantern on my block!

The conclusions drawn from this experiment:
1) Miniature pumpkins grow fast and early.
2) A vegetable mold that has any flexibility at all will yield to the growing fruit.
3) If you want professional results, invest in professional equipment.
4) This was fun! I may do it again some time.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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