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The Art of the Jack-O-Lantern: More than just a pretty face!

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Streeter Seidell explained the history of the pumpkin made into a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern yesterday in 7 Burning Halloween Questions: Answered! Once it became a tradition, the carving of the pumpkin has evolved into an art form, and in many places, a competition. Everyone knows who the best pumpkin carver in your neighborhood is. Many communities have pumpkin carving contests. And on the internet, all you have to do is post a picture and your jack-o-lantern will be judged and compared to the best in the world. Here are some of them.

3D Jack-O-Lanterns

Ray Villafane is a master of pumpkin carving. This Predator pumpkin shows off his 3D technique. You'll also find intricately-detailed cartoonish faces of all kinds on his site, as well as a tutorial on how to make your own 3D Jack-O-Lantern!

Fantasy Pumpkins

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Noel Dickover carves designs from science fiction and fantasy. One of his more popular designs is the Death Star Jack-O-Lantern, which he carved into a 120 pound pumpkin over a period of nine hours in 2006. Dickover's website Fantasy Pumpkins has a tutorial on carving the Death Star, and patterns you can use for many other icons and characters.

Pumpkin Gutter

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Scott Cummins is an artist by trade, but this time of year he turns into the Pumpkin Gutter. See the dozens of Jack-O-Lanterns he's carved over the past dozen years or so in the galleries.

Extreme Pumpkins

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Tom Nardone does Extreme Pumpkins, a site that will fire your imagination beyond Jack-O-Lanterns with traditional smiles. There, you'll find flaming pumpkins, drowning pumpkins, puking pumpkins, mooning pumpkins, conjoined twin pumpkins, cannibal pumpkins, radioactive pumpkins, and pumpkins that have been wounded by guns, axes, and other implements of destruction. Extreme Pumpkins has a pumpkin carving contest every year.

The Toothy Look

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Nathan Wesling of Pumpkin Way tends to emphasize teeth in his pumpkin carvings. He posts his carved Jack-O-Lanterns for ecards, wallpapers, and screen savers.

World of Warcraft

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Last year, World of Warcraft sponsored a pumpkin carving contest that attracted quite a few wonderful designs. This geeky Jack-O-Lantern by Keeff stood out among the game characters.

Yes We Carve

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With a presidential election so soon after Halloween, it was inevitable that Jack-O-Lanterns are used to display the carver's political leanings. This "Barack O'Lantern" by Scott Gierman of Marion, Illinois is one of many featured at Yes We Carve.

Pumpkin Artists for Hire

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You don't have to be talented, or even experienced, to have an expertly-carved Jack-O-Lantern. Masterpiece Pumpkins is a professional pumpkin carving service to do it for you! They will carve or etch a design onto either a pumpkin or watermelon, including your own portrait if you like, or they can come and give a pumpkin carving demonstration.

Snap-O-Lantern

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From Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories comes a Jack-O-Lantern wired to snap its teeth open and shut! The Snap-O-Lantern has a hinged jaw controlled by a tiny servo motor. Instructions for making your own are included, plus a video.

Painted Pumpkins

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If you want to keep your pumpkin intact for cooking, or if you just don't like carving, painting your pumpkin may be the way to go. Tagyerit Presents Painted Pumpkins has a large collection of submitted painted pumpkins from all over. Terri Matschilles painted this pumpkin for her daughter's kindergarten class in Munich.

If you'd like to try some art Jack-O-Lanterns, there are plenty of web resources to help you out. First, some basic carving tips. Here are instructions for adapting a photograph into a pumpkin-carving design. The Pumpkin Wizard offers free carving patterns and a forum for carvers.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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