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6 Cool Insects You Can Raise at Home

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Don't let Mother Nature have all the fun!

1. Monarch Butterflies

Raising monarchs is super easy. If you don't have a patch of milkweed handy, order the plants online and plant them outside in clusters of three or more plants. Check the undersides of the leaves for eggs and tiny caterpillars. When you find a caterpillar, dig up the milkweed plant, wrap it in tulle netting from the fabric store so the caterpillar won't get away, and bring it inside to watch it develop. (You can order the caterpillars online, too.) It will eat like crazy for about ten days until it pupates. If you're raising more than one, you'll need additional milkweed plants. After the butterfly has emerged from the chrysalis, release it outside. Monarch Watch has detailed instructions about rearing monarchs, and you can order tags for your butterflies if you want to help track their migration.

2. Silkworms

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Silkworms need mulberry leaves to eat, or you can order powdered artificial silkworm chow online along with the eggs. I asked around until I found a friend who had raised silkworms before, and she gave me a batch of eggs to keep in my fridge during the winter. When the mulberry tree in my yard started leafing out, I removed the eggs from the fridge. They hatched about nine days later. They should start to spin cocoons in a few weeks. This site shows a nice set-up using plastic deli trays and toilet paper rolls.

3. Crickets

Flickr: Ivan Walsh

Remember the children's book, The Cricket in Times Square? Crickets are charming and have been kept as pets in China for hundreds of years. If you can't catch a cricket in your house or yard, most pet stores carry them as food for larger animals. You can order a little cricket cage online, or use a jar with holes punched in the top. Place a piece of damp sponge in there so they can stay hydrated, keep them in a warm spot, and feed them scraps of fruits and veggies. Voila. Pet cricket.

4. Ladybugs

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Whether you catch a ladybug yourself or order ladybug larvae from the internet, these are also pretty easy to care for indoors for a short time. Like crickets, adult ladybugs need a damp paper towel or sponge to drink from. Aphids are their favorite food, but if you're only keeping your ladybug for a few days it can get by on fruit. Tip: Milkweed tends to get covered in aphids. If you're already growing milkweed for your monarchs, bam. Ladybug food.

5. Black Swallowtail Butterflies

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These gorgeous creatures like to lay their eggs in common garden herbs, including parsley, dill, and fennel. If you want to try to observe their life cycle, plant a big clump of parsley in a pot and keep an eye out for caterpillars, which are green with yellow and black markings and just as beautiful as the mature butterflies. If you have cats, tie some tulle netting around the pot so the caterpillars won't get eaten or crawl away. The black swallowtail chrysalis looks like a piece of bark or a small stick, so they can be hard to spot. I haven't had terribly good success with these, but a friend of mine raises them successfully every year.

6. Praying Mantises

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These guys are crazy. Not only does the female often devour the male after mating, but the babies devour each other if given a chance. I bought a couple of praying mantis egg cases (they're about the size of a small marshmallow, and beige in color) at a garden fair once. I kept them in my garden shed and checked them regularly until I saw a million billion babies in the container, and then I set them free in my garden in hopes that they'd keep pests down. You can raise them in a small aquarium too, or buy a kid-oriented kit. Like betta fish, they need to be kept in separate containers to prevent a fight to the death. Other requirements: Sticks to climb on, and plenty of bugs to eat. This is a little involved for me, but if you're into carnivorous beasts, knock yourself out.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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