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Lorraine Phelan

Orchids: Masters of Plant Pareidolia

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Lorraine Phelan

Pareidolia is the tendency to see familiar or significant images in places where none is intended. Classic examples are sightings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in wood grain or the pastime of looking for shapes in clouds. Pareidolia is encouraged in the Rorschach inkblot test. There are plenty of examples in the natural world, and orchids are particularly notable for looking like something else.

Lady Orchid

Photograph by Jeantosti.

Orchis purpurea, or Lady Orchid, range through Europe and Northern Africa. The lovely blossoms show a wide purple skirt and a fabulous hat, under which you can almost see a pair of demure eyes. We don't know why a plant would grow flowers that look like a lady, but we can sure see it.

Monkey Orchid

Photograph by BerndH.

The monkey orchid (Orchis simia) is said to be shaped like a monkey's body. A male monkey, to be sure. See more pictures of them in this post.

Naked Man Orchid

Photograph by Lumbar.

Orchis italica is native to the Mediterranian area, and is sometimes called the Naked Man Orchid. You can see why. The blossoms even have little eyes and smiles!

Dracula

Photograph by Eric in SF.

Dracula radiosa is an orchid native to Colombia. It might not look the way you picture Dracula from the movies, but it certainly has a creepy face staring at you. Dracula is the genus name, and there are over 100 species, so the face in this flower has nothing to do with Dracula. Still creepy.

Monkey Face Orchid

Photograph by Flickr user Eric Hunt.

Dracula simia is another species in the Dracula genus. As the name implies, the blooms of this orchid look exactly like a monkey's face. See more pictures here.

Moth Orchid

Photograph by Arad.

There are about 60 species of Moth Orchids (Phalaenopsis), which are native to Asia and popular among orchid growers. Many of them, if you look really close, appear to have a small bird emerging from their center. Get a closer look at this pink specimen.

Get an even better look at the bird in another photograph at Flickr.

Flying Duck Orchid

Photograph by Flickr user Lorraine Phelan.

The Australian orchid genus Caleana is still not fully classified, but it is commonly called the Flying Duck Orchid. The shape evolved to attract the sawfly, which pollinates the plant. Each component of the flower is design to use the sawfly, like a bright color for it to see, a place to land, and a petal that traps the fly into taking a pollen-rich route out. That's one smart duck!

Bee Orchid

Photograph by Hectonichus.

While we can't say that nature intended for an orchid to look like a male body or a flying duck, the orchid genus Ophrys has a simple reason for looking the way it does. The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) bloom resembles a bee in order to attract bees. When a male bee tries to mate with the flower (because it's so pretty), he ends up pollinating it. Using an insect to achieve plant sex is common, but using insect sex to achieve plant sex is brilliantly weird. It apparently works well, because Ophrys ranges over several continents. You can read more about orchids that imitate insects at NPR

Fly Orchid

Photograph by Flickr user Ann Mead.

Another species of Orphys is the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera). The flowers not only look like flies, but also smell of insect pheromones. Found all over Europe, the Fly Orchid does not even have to produce nectar to draw flies for pollination purposes.

A Well-dressed Orchid

Photograph by Javier Díaz Barrera.

Javier Díaz Barrera took this picture of an unidentified orchid in Spain just a couple of months ago. Can you see the little smiling man wearing a suit and tie? You have to wonder what kind of insects this is supposed to attract! My guess is that it is related to the Ophrys genus.

Bonus: Hooker's Lips

Orchids may be the masters of plant pareidolia, but they aren't the only plants that look like something else. Psychotria elata is a tropical plant that produces the psychedelic chemical DMT. The plant is also called Hooker's Lips. I can't imagine why.

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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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