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World Record Garden Produce

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I picked the very first ripe tomato from my garden yesterday. It wasn't even big enough to cover a sandwich with a slice. There are much larger green tomatoes that will, whenever they ripen. But they are all small potatoes (so to speak) compared to the monsters that some serious gardeners grow. I'm talking about the biggest vegetables ever.

Prolific Cabbage Patch

The growing season is short in Alaska, so vegetables must grow as fast as they can. Steve Hubacek worked for 14 years to get his cabbages to grow very fast -and it worked. He entered a 125-pound cabbage in the "green cabbage" category at the Alaska State Fair in 2009, and not only won, but set a world record for the biggest cabbage. Then two days later, he brought out the big guns, er cabbage. The vegetable he called "The Beast" was entered in the annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off and recorded at 127 pounds, which broke his own record. Hubacek said the biggest cabbages don't taste so good, so the Beast was eventually made into compost to feed this year's crop.

Deep Roots

The world's longest carrot measured over 19 feet! Gardener Joe Atherton of Nottinghamshire, England, grows his carrots in plastic tubes, filled with a compost mix, set at a 45 degree angle, with watering holes placed at precise spots for maximum nutrition and drainage. One of his many tubes produced the record-setting root in 2007, after 14 months of growth.

When Life Gives you Lemons

In 2003, Aharon Shemoel grew a lemon that weighed 11 pounds, 9.7 ounces in his orchard at Kefar Zeitim, Israel. It appears to be a conjoined twin.

What a Melon!

The Lloyd Bright family grew a watermelon in 2005 that weighed 268.8 pounds, enough to feed an entire reunion. The Bright farm of Hope, Arkansas had already set two previous records for watermelons.

Digging Taters

The Year of the Potato was celebrated in 2008, so it was only appropriate that a record would be set. Khalil Semhat, a farmer in Tyre, Labanon dug up a potato that required help from a friend just to get it out of the ground. The huge tuber weighed 24.9 pounds! However, there were questions raised as to whether this was a potato or a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes grow much larger, and the world record sweet potato was an 81 pounder grown by Manuel Pérez Pérez of Spain in 2004.

The Guinness folks determined that the Lebanese potato was a sweet potato, and did not break the potato record, which had been held for ten years previously by Nigel Kermode. Kermode grew a 7 pound, 13 ounce spud on the Isle on Man in 1998.

The Great Pumpkin

The world record for the biggest pumpkin is broken almost every year as gardeners compete in contests all over. The current record is held by high school math teacher Christy Harp, who brought a 1,725 pound monster pumpkin to the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers annual weigh-off in October of 2009.

Disney's "Tomato Tree"

A tomato vine growing in a greenhouse at The Land pavilion at Epcot Center produces up to 32,000 tomatoes a year! The tomatoes aren't all that big, but the combined weight of that many is over a thousand pounds. Disney agricultural scientist Yong Huang found the tomato variety in a laboratory in China and brought back the seeds to Florida. The huge vine has an extensive support matrix to allow it room to grow and spread and the enclosed greenhouse provides sunlight and temperature control for continuous growth. And Disney isn't telling the rest of the "tree's" secrets.

Tomato in the Cantaloupes

Gordon Graham experimented with his tomato plants in 1986. He figured a really big vine grown before the fruit set would be advantageous for larger fruit. One of Graham's vines grew to almost 14 feet when a storm blew it off its supports and into the cantaloupe patch. At that point, the gardener gave up on the vine and turned his attention to other plants. But the huge vine kept growing, more than tripling in length. Hidden among the cantaloupes, one tomato grew unnoticed until it reached gigantic proportions. Graham eventually saw the big tomato, which weighed seven pounds, 12 ounces when it was finally picked -a world record tomato!

The tomato was ultimately sliced into 21 sandwich slabs and eaten. The Miracle Gro company had a replica made with the same dimensions as the original and presented it to Graham as a record of the... record. Miracle Gro offers a cash prize to anyone growing a bigger tomato, but no one has been able to beat Graham's record yet.

With the new crops coming in and fair season underway, some of these records may be broken soon..

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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