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More Than You Ever Needed to Know About Mistletoe

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When you sidle up to your sweetie for a smooch beneath the mistletoe this year, try not to think too much about the provenance of the plant's name. It's hardly the most romantic thing.

The name mistletoe comes from the Old English mistletan (mistel, "mistletoe" or sometimes "basil" + tan, "twig"). Its history before that is unclear, but some etymologists trace the mistel to the German mist or "dung," in which case we're kissing underneath something like the "dung on a twig." This is plausible, given the way the plant is dispersed: Birds eat the plant's berries, but don't digest the seeds. When they drop some little birdy turdies later on, some of the lucky seeds hit a suitable tree branch on the way down to Earth and stick around long enough to grow into something.

Mistletoe is not just one plant, but some 1000-plus loosely related species from all over the world. Many of these are what are called hemi-parasites. The plants have green leaves and perform photosynthesis, but also pilfer some nutrients from a host organism. Once a seed has gone from bird poop to branch and germinated, the mistletoe sends its roots down into the tree's wood to steal some of its water and nutrients. The mistletoe grows on the free food into a thick tangle of stems that Europeans often referred to as "witches’ brooms" and that the Navajo called "baskets on high."

These "baskets" are pretty important to a lot of animals. Birds and bugs feed on the berries and build nests in the stems. Tangles of mistletoe are especially popular as nesting sites for owls, hawks and other raptors. In the winter, when fresh foliage is scarce, elk, deer, moose and even domestic cattle will turn to mistletoe leaves and berries as a high-protein snack. It's not something you'd want to munch on while you wait for the Christmas goose to finish cooking, though—mistletoe is mildly toxic to humans.

This isn't to say we haven't had some use for it over the years. The ancient Druids believed oak trees to be sacred, and accepted any mistletoe that grew on oaks as gifts from the heavens. They would harvest the plant from the trees and decorate their homes with it for the winter solstice. The Druids probably didn't kiss under their mistletoe, though, and no one seems to really know where or how that tradition began. It's been variously attributed to the Greeks, the Norse, the Romans, and the Babylonians.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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