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8 Decidedly Unromantic Facts About Mistletoe

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1. Mistletoe, not unlike some you may have smooched beneath it, is a parasite. The plant sucks water and minerals through a sinister-sounding bump called a haustorium that forms on the host tree. It might make you feel better to know that, technically, mistletoe is only partially parasitic: The plant is capable of photosynthesis, unlike true parasites that take all of their nutrients from their hosts. So while mistletoe doesn’t pay rent, it does occasionally do the laundry or whip up a nice soufflé.


2. Candle companies love to peddle holiday scents labeled “Mistletoe” –- you can even buy mistletoe-scented air fresheners for your car—but the plant, says mistletoe expert Jonathan Briggs, has no scent at all. Briggs, who hails from Gloucestershire, England, debunks all manner of mistletoe misinformation in A Little Book About Mistletoe and on his wonderful mistletoe blog.


3. Throughout the ages, mistletoe has been used to treat a battery of ailments, from leprosy, worms and labor pains to high blood pressure. In Europe, injections of mistletoe extract are often prescribed as a complementary treatment for cancer patients.

4. A time-honored southern tradition for fetching mistletoe out of a tall tree is to blast it down with a shotgun. Let’s hope no one’s kissing under it at the time.

5. In medieval times, mistletoe wasn’t just a Christmas decoration, but one perhaps better suited to Halloween: Hung over doors to homes and stables, it was thought to prevent witches and ghosts from entering.

6. According to some accounts, the name mistletoe means “dung branch,” a nod to the seeds’ ability to stick to tree branches when pooped out by birds. The viscous middle layer of the fruit is so sticky that the seeds get glued where they land post-digestion, which starts a new mistletoe plant. Mistletoe goo is so sticky that trappers used to smear it on tree branches to catch birds, which would land and then be unable to fly away.

7. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder told how druids revered mistletoe, recounting a ceremony where they gathered it with a golden sickle, then sacrificed two white bulls. The ceremony still takes place each year, minus the bull-slaying, at the Tenbury Mistletoe Festival in England.

8. In Norse mythology, mistletoe is a god-killer. Balder, the son of Odin and Frigg, was felled by an arrow made of mistletoe, the only material that could hurt him. Oddly, this may have been the origin of the kissing tradition, as some retellings say that Frigg revived Balder and was so happy, she commanded anyone who stood under the plant to kiss as a reminder of how love conquered death.

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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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May 23, 2017
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