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Growing Tomatoes

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For each of the last 15 years, I've grown between 50 and 100 tomato plants from seed, which gives me a year's supply of tomatoes, tomato juice, tomato sauce, and salsa. And plenty to give away, also!

In southeastern Kentucky, the "frost safe" date is May 10th. To grow tomatoes from seed, you should start them 6-12 weeks earlier than your local frost safe date. I remember to get started sometimes between the Super Bowl and the SEC basketball tournament.


Start your seeds in a very light soil medium, either a commercial starting mix or a homemade mixture of sphagnum moss and vermiculite. I add some anti-fungal agent to prevent mold. Mix it with just as much warm water as the soil will hold. I plant the seeds in leftover food containers, label the variety (there are four different kinds this year) and cover the tray with a loose baggie. Then place the trays in a warm area, like on top of the refrigerator. When they sprout, remove the plastic and place them in a window or under a plant light. Water when needed, then drain the excess.

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I built special shelves in my southern-facing windows for plants. Young tomatoes need as many hours of sunlight as you can give them. Some of these plants are peppers and marigolds.

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When the seedlings have four leaves, you can separate them into their own pots. I use 2- or 3-ounce plastic bathroom cups, with holes in the bottom made with an ice pick. Peat pots dry out too quickly. Use potting soil, or a homemade mix of topsoil and your seed-starting mix. If you use compost, make sure you're not bringing insects into the house. Carefully jiggle the roots apart. Handle the seedlings by the leaves, not the stems, and try to preserve the roots. Bury them up to their necks, so that more roots will sprout from the underground part of the stem.

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If you plant more than one variety, label each cup, or else you'll never know how many you have of each when planting time comes! The CHE here is to designate cherry tomatoes. Water them thoroughly immediately after potting and check the pots for drainage.

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There is never enough window space, so I have a couple of plant lights as well. They run 24 hours a day so I can rotate plant trays under them for 12 hours at a time.

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When the outside temperature is above 50 degrees, you can set plants outside in the sun. This can be a chore, carrying plants out in the morning and in at night, but eventually the weather will be warm enough to leave them out overnight. By the first of May, I figure out how many plants of each variety I will need. I sell the others, which pays for my planting supplies, and give quite a few away to family and friends.

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Get your garden plot ready before the frost safe date by tilling the soil, laying a plastic mulch (if you don't like to weed), and setting up a trellis. A trellis will keep the vines and fruit off the ground. I use whatever is available, of course, so this trellis is made of branches, broom sticks, pipes, and rebar. Tomatoes should be planted two feet apart in rows three feet apart. That seems like a lot of room, but you'll need every bit of it. Unless you kill the plants.

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A wise man once told me you should dig a ten-dollar hole for a one-dollar plant. I dig a deep wide hole for each tiny plant and fill the hole with compost. Then I push the plant out of its pot by pressing on the bottom and slip the plant into the compost, once again burying it up to its neck. You can use the pots again next year. Water thoroughly soon after you plant. Wipe your feet before you go inside.


Water your plants every week if you don't get a good soaking rain. It's astonishing how fast they grow once they're outside! Use some soft string and tie the vines loosely to the trellis as they grow. You can see yellow tomato blossoms in this picture if you look closely. A pint of liquid fertilizer per plant every week will do a world of good at this stage, especially if your soil isn't all that great. I mix up 15-20 gallons of fertilizer at a time for this garden.

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Before long, the vines will be huge and you'll see some green fruits. Since they are green, you won't see how very many there are. I don't need to use pesticides, but you should keep an eye out for symptoms, especially if you use heirloom seeds. Modern varieties are quite resistant to disease and pests. The border of marigolds keeps out nematodes. The only critters that are drawn to my tomatoes are turtles, which can be apprehended and redirected easily.


Eventually, you'll spy a tomato turning red. This is a glorious day in the garden! It happens in mid-July where I live; your mileage may vary. For the rest of the month, I have enough tomatoes for salads and sandwiches. Then in August, I have to take a five-gallon bucket out twice a day to relieve the straining plants of their burden. Grocery stores love to advertise "vine-ripened" tomatoes, but I finish ripening most of mine in a window. Otherwise, the weight would tear the plants down! I pick tomatoes that are orange or light red. Once they start to turn color, they won't grow any bigger. When they are all red, they are the most delicious thing you've ever eaten.


Through the month of August, I am up to my elbows in tomatoes. The ripest are in the refrigerator, the barely ripe are on the counter, and the ripening fruits are in the window. When a bushel or so are ripe enough at the same time, I peel, chop, cook, and can them. By the time I come up for air in September, I have a year's supply of tomato products, a kitchen spattered in tomato juice, and a garden that has settled down to producing just enough for salads and sandwiches until the end of October.

See also: A Dozen Pumpkins, Do-It-Yourself Molded Pumpkins, and Salsa Time!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]