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9 Delightful Garden Cakes

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This is a difficult time of year for avid gardeners. March is so close you can see it on the calendar, and some plants are beginning to sprout, but you know it will be some time before you can really get outside and run your hands through the topsoil. To get you through these last few weeks before spring, you might want to try baking a garden in your kitchen! Here are some lovely cakes fashioned after Mother Earth's bounty.

1. Flower Garden Cake with Worms

Redditor Mehlforwarding made this cake for his four-year-old daughter's birthday. He took a store-bought cake, iced it with chocolate frosting, trimmed ladyfinger cookies to make the fence, sprinkled the cake with crushed Oreo cookies, and made the flowers out of squashed gumdrops and toothpicks. The instructions say "Allow gummy worms to run free."  You can also follow the directions from Spoonful.

2. Vegetable Garden Cake

Photo credit: Flickr user Abbey Hendrickson.

Abbey Hendrickson made this vegetable garden cake for her son's first birthday party. The veggies are cake, too, made with a Garden Cakelets pan from Williams-Sonoma. It appears the company no longer sells the pan.  

3. Flower Garden with Butterflies

This lovely garden of flowers from redditor thetourist85 is made of buttercream frosting. The fence is made from Cadbury Fingers, and the butterflies and flowers were made from royal icing, then painted with edible color.

4. Carrot Pound Cake

This cake is thoroughly realistic, because carrots always come from the garden with plenty of dirt! In this case, that dirt is crushed cookies. Kendra at Stop Lookin' Get Cookin. made the carrots from wedges of frozen pound cake dipped in colored chocolate. The full instructions are posted so you can make your own carrot crop.

5. Roly-poly Garden Cake

This garden birthday cake came from a bakery, but the roly-poly bugs on top were homemade, because Madeline thought roly-poly bugs were awesome. The making of the bugs out of fondant was a family project that the kids really enjoyed -and it made them all proud of the finished cake!   

6. Vegetable Garden Cupcakes

Photo credit: Flickr user kikiduck.

Carrie made garden cupcakes with various vegetables and even little garden signs! Iced cupcakes were topped with crushed Oreo "cookie dirt." The vegetables were shaped from Tootsie rolls of different colors, with frosting for leaves. The pea pods have green M&Ms tucked inside! The signs are made of graham crackers dipped in chocolate. You can see a series of photographs featuring closeups of the details in her Flicker set.

7. Hippo Bath Cake

Photo credit: Flickr user Ken's Oven.

A hippo takes a bath outside in a wooden tub among the garden flowers! Ken's Oven made this cute cake for a friend's birthday. Inside all those decorations is a lemon rum cake with almonds. Yum!

8. Chickens Ate My Garden Cake

The boss told a story of how chickens ate up her garden. When the boss's birthday came around, redditor Professor_Who recalled the story in cake form. The cake is chocolate fudge with Oreo cookies inside; the chickens and vegetables are fondant.

9. Stuffed Carrot Garden Cupcakes

Photo credit: Flickr user 1 Fine Cookie.

This looks like carrots growing out of flowerpots. But since you know this list is about cakes, you might be forgiven for thinking they are carrot cakes. These are actually strawberries, stuffed with carrot cake crumbs, coated with melted colored white chocolate, and plunged into cupcakes baked in flowerpots. The leaves? Oh, those are from real carrots! Jasmin has the complete instructions at 1 Fine Cookie.

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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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