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Bob Travis

Sweet Honeysuckles

Original image
Bob Travis

Photograph by Flickr user Bob Travis.

When I bought my first house, it came with a cement pond that the realtor didn’t even know about, because it was covered with honeysuckle vines. It took me months to remove all the honeysuckle, because the roots were thicker than my arm! In the US, Lonicera japonica is an invasive species that grows uncontrolled in moderate climates. It can cover buildings like kudzu, but it is also strong enough to strangle trees. However, when the blooms expose the sweet nectar inside, it can make the whole neighborhood smell like heaven.

Photograph by Flickr user Manuel M. Ramos.

There are about 180 species of honeysuckle plant, but most of those are native to Asia. Only a couple dozen belong naturally to Europe, India, and North America. The problem with honeysuckle is that travelers want to take the beautiful flowering vines away from their native habitat, and that's when they become invasive species. Honeysuckles that know their place behave much better.

Photograph by Flickr user Anita Gould.

Bell’s honeysuckle (Lonicera x bella) is a hybrid with lovely pink flowers that was cultivated from a Siberian species (Lonicera tatarica) and an Asian species (Lonicera morrowii). This beauty has a price, as Bell’s honeysuckle has become an invasive species in Wisconsin, New England, and other parts of the U.S. The seeds are spread by birds that eat the honeysuckle’s red berries. The blooms can also be white, so it is sometimes difficult to identify.

Photograph by Flickr user Emma Cooper.

The blue-berried honeysuckle (Lonicera caerulea) is one of the few honeysuckle species that produces edible fruit. It is also known as a honeyberry bush. You might not even recognize it as a honeysuckle; it grows as a shrub instead of a vine. The plants are cultivated for food in Russia and Japan.

Photograph by Bob Bors.

The berries are blue and come in varied shapes, and the fruit inside is purplish-red when the berries are ripe. The flavor is said to be similar to that of raspberries or blueberries, depending on the variety.

Photograph by Flickr user InAweofGod’sCreation.

Trumpet vine (Lonicera sempervirens) is a honeysuckle species native to the eastern United States. If conditions are right, trumpet vine can grow out of control. They are sometimes planted to compete with the invasive L. japonica. The bright red flowers attract hummingbirds to the sweet nectar inside as well as insects.

Photograph by Flickr user Paul Williams.

The gold flame honeysuckle (Lonicera x heckrottii) is a hybrid cultivar developed for its beautiful colors, which range through yellow and pink to orange, purple, and red. In warmer climates, these plants bloom all year round! Though it is a vining plant, gardeners who trim them can get them to grow like a shrub.

Photograph by Walter Siegmund.

Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) is native to the American West. It produces red berries that are edible, but are not widely used.

Photograph by Flickr user Hindrik Sijens.

Honeysuckles are beautiful and fragrant when they bloom, but as many species are invasive, you should always check and make sure any plants you buy are native to your country. A friend with an existing honeysuckle vine might let you take cuttings and propagate your own. If you live in an area where the common Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) grows, you can wait and they'll probably invade your yard sooner or later. But beware: if you want them in your yard, you should to give them something sturdy to grow over besides trees. And a healthy plant will send out shoots to places you may not want them to go. 

Photograph by Instructables member Falaco Soliton.

This is how you get at the honeysuckle nectar if you don’t have a hummingbird beak: Carefully pinch the bottom of the flower, not all the way through, just enough to cut the petals. Then gently pull the end, which should pull the style through. The style will scrape the nectar from the inside of the petal, and you’ll see a tiny drop of nectar, which is all sugar water with a tiny amount of fragrance. See more pictures of the process at Instructables. Keep in mind that the flowers of Lonicera japonica are also edible, in case you want to add a sweet tidbit to your salad. If you aren’t sure what type of honeysuckle you have, it’s best to avoid eating the flowers or berries, because many are toxic.

Honeysuckle almost demands a love/hate relationship, but in May and June, or whenever they bloom in your area, it's hard to hate them.

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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:

501069-OpeningCeremony2.jpg

Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

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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