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The West End

17 Stunning Works of Mosaïculture

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The West End

Some artists work with brushes and oils; others create with chisels and marble. Still others create art from nature itself. At a triennial competition coordinated by Mosaïcultures International of Montréal, artists from around the world present arrangements of still-living plants atop mesh skeletons, creating towering exhibition pieces that put the best-trimmed privet hedges to shame.

1. Mother Earth

Denis Savard

This outstanding entry in the 2013 Mosaïcultures International competition stars a larger-than-life Mother Earth—an appropriate guest to have at a horticultural exhibit. She’s in good company: More than 200 artists have contributed to the event, representing regions of Europe, America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

2. Mighty Ducks

Mosaïcultures International of Montreal

This quirky water-based piece, energetically titled Mallards Taking Off!, was Quebec’s own contribution to the very first MIM competition, which they hosted in 2000. The competition was themed, simply, “The Planet is a Mosaic.” Those early entries over a decade ago established the practice of mosaïculture as an international pursuit, with participating organizations from 14 countries and more than 30 cities. Quebec chose to pay homage to their ubiquitous water birds—perhaps after comparing notes with the team from Boston, Massachusetts, who submitted a display of more sedately posed swans.

3. We’ll Always Have Paris

Mosaïcultures International of Montréal

This all-natural replica of the famed Eiffel Tower (submitted, naturally, by the city of Paris) from 2006 wins no points for originality, but quite a few for structural integrity. For increased accuracy, the creators might have thought to include hordes of miniature tourists wielding cameras and grinning cheesily.

4. China’s Got A Winner

Mosaïcultures International of Montreal

The 2000 entry from Shanghai, China, blew away the competition to win the first-ever Grand Honorary Award for both 2-D and 3-D works. The piece, Two Dragons Playing With a Pearl, paid appropriate homage to the Asian nation’s rich cultural aesthetic while mastering the very modern art of mosaïculture.

5. A Pretty Good Wall

Mosaïcultures International of Montreal

While Pekin (Beijing), China’s 2003 entry doesn’t quite possess the imposing stature of the real Great Wall’s nearly 4000 miles of stone fortification, it looks far sturdier than the average garden sculpture. If defense-readiness were a criterion for judging, we’d have a clear winner.

6. Flipper

Mosaïcultures International of Montreal

When Hong Kong hosted the MIM competition in 2006, their leaping dolphins impressed audiences with artfully placed jets of water that made them appear mid-jump.

7. Acropolis Now

Mosaïcultures International of Montreal

In a throwback to their classical heritage, participants from Athens, Greece reconstructed Athena’s temple for Mosaïculture International 2006. One of the themes that year included “illustration of the architecture of the city the participant comes from,” and what better example of Athenian architecture than the Parthenon itself? Still considered today to be the most perfect archetype of the Doric style ever built, a temple good enough for the goddess is certainly good enough for us lowly mortals. The Olympic rings out front are a nice added touch, serving as both a reminder of the Winter Games taking place that year in Turin, and of the original Olympics founded by Greeks thousands of years ago.

8. Face-Off

Andre Vandal

What this flat masterpiece lacks in dimensions, it more than makes up for in sheer size. The 2-D mosaic’s finer details might be lost in an up-close viewing on the ground, but the view from above reveals this piece’s real artistry.

9. Flora and Fauna

Andre Vandal

There’s something to be said for the self-referential nature of larger-than-life flowers made of flowers.

10. Man’s Best Friend

The West End

This shaggy pup is constructed entirely of a variety of sedge, a grassy plant family that includes such diverse cousins as water chestnuts, sawgrass, and papyrus. 

11. Butterfly Effect

Andre Vandal

Another 2-D entry into the 2013 competition, this brightly hued butterfly spreads wings made of over a dozen different flowering plants.

12. The Nervous Horseman


This uneasy-looking fellow is a rarity in the competition, one of the few full human figures shown in any sort of action pose. Although he looks to be securely perched on his horse, his anxieties might be due to a considerable size difference between himself and his pony pal.

13. Won’t You Be My Neigh-bor?

Andre Vandal

Horses appear to be a popular theme for mosaïculturists. This particular equine scene eschews living plants for the bulk of its materials, instead opting to use loose branches of salvaged wood. What’s impressive is how little work seems to have gone into shaping the wood: the branches maintain their natural shape, and together their bumps and bends still clearly convey two horses in three dimensions.

14. Head and Shoulders

Denis Savard via Flickr

This Easter Island-inspired head is plenty big compared to the man tending to its top, but the real moai on which it was modeled have been measured to a height of over 32 feet. At least there’s no mystery as to how this one got here.

15. How Does Your Garden Grow?

Guy Boily c/o MIM

Are those cabbages you see? Not quite. This clever play on plants is simple, but sweet.

16. Planet of the Apes

Guy Boily c/o MIM

These stern-looking primates evolved from grass.

17. Garden Guardian

Eric Sonstroem

This green lady is featured in the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s current exhibit, entitled “Imaginary Worlds: Plants Larger Than Life.” It is the largest piece of the 19 “living sculptures of fantasy delight,” measuring 25 feet tall. Atlanta is the first botanical garden in the U.S. to host an exhibit in conjunction with Mosaïcultures International of Montreal.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”