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Frederick Sander via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Dangerous and Highly Competitive World of Victorian Orchid Hunting

Original image
Frederick Sander via Wikimedia // Public Domain

In Victorian Great Britain, a new sickness spread among the wealthiest in society. Sufferers became obsessed with obtaining a fix, regardless of the danger or money involved. The name of this illness? Orchidelirium—a mania for collecting orchids.

Orchid fever gripped England starting in the early 1800s after British naturalist William John Swainson used some orchids that hadn’t yet bloomed as packing material, thinking they were worthless weeds, while sending back some other exotic plants from Brazil. Upon arrival in Britain, some of the orchids burst into glorious flower, entrancing all those who saw them and sparking the growing obsession with the plant.

Collectors were quickly dispatched by rich patrons and wily businessmen to sail across the oceans to the jungles of South America, the South Pacific, and elsewhere to search out the elusive plants. Such expeditions were hugely risky given the perils from wild animals, hostile natives, and tropical diseases, and many orchid hunters met a grisly end. For example, in 1901 an expedition of eight men entered the jungles of the Philippines in search of orchids: one was eaten by a tiger, a second was doused in oil and burnt to death, and five more were never seen again. The lone survivor of this dangerous mission emerged with an enormous haul of Phalaenopsis, also known as moth orchids, and probably made his fortune.

Phalaenopsis schilleriana around 1870. Image credit: Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

The potential to make huge amounts of money meant that many ignored the danger of the jungles and joined the hunt for orchids. Many of these hunters were keen naturalists with a spirit of adventure who were employed by large orchid firms back in Europe to keep up their stock of fresh plants and hopefully discover new species. The list of collectors who perished in the search for orchids is long and full of gruesome anecdotes—William Arnold drowned in the Orinoco River, Gustavo Wallis died of yellow fever and malaria, David Bowman caught dysentery in the jungles of Columbia after returning there to restock when his first haul was stolen by rivals. Albert Millican, who in 1891 published the landmark text on orchid hunting Travels and Adventures of an Orchid Hunter, took part in five perilous trips to fetch orchids from the Andes. During his final expedition, he was stabbed to death.

Safely back in Britain, it was the orchid dealers who became amazingly wealthy. Frederick Sander became known as “the orchid king,” and beginning in 1886 he was the official Royal Orchid Grower to Queen Victoria. He employed 23 orchid hunters, and owned a large orchid farm in St Albans, England with 60 greenhouses in which to store and cultivate the tropical plants. As his business boomed, he also opened farms in Summit, New Jersey and Bruges, Belgium. Sander trafficked in vast quantities of plants—at one point, he claimed to have imported over one million specimens of just one species from New Guinea. Sander and his fellow orchid dealers shipped millions of orchids back to Europe, but such was the delicate nature of the bulbs that frequently less than 1 percent of a ship’s cargo of orchids safely made it to market.

One of Sander’s most valuable partners was Benedict Roezl, an orchid-hunter from Prague. Roezl was especially striking because he had only one hand, the other having been replaced with a metal hook after an accident while demonstrating some machinery he had invented. The piratical look only enhanced his reputation as an especially intrepid and ruthless orchid hunter. For 40 years, Roezl traveled across the Americas, either on horseback or by foot, discovering numerous new specimens (at least seven orchid varieties have since been named in his honor) and shipping vast quantities back to Sander to sell at great profit. Roezl was one of the few orchid hunters who made it to retirement, despite being robbed 17 times. His contribution to botany was so great that a statue of him was later erected in his home city of Prague.

Wilhelm Micholitz around 1890 in Singapore Cambridge University Botanic Gardens // Public Domain

Sander was a tough boss, always pushing his orchid hunters to greater glories. He communicated with his team via cable and letter, and some of these fascinating pieces of correspondence now survive in the archives at Kew Gardens in London. One series of letters reveals that orchid hunter Wilhelm Micholitz, during a mission to New Guinea, was terrified by natives who practiced ritual sacrifice. Micholitz collected a shipload of orchids and was getting ready to sail home when disaster struck and his ship caught fire, resulting in the loss of his precious cargo. Micholitz wrote to Sander outlining the dangers and asking to be allowed to come home, only for Sander to cable the curt reply: “Return, recollect.” However, Sander did allow Micholitz to employ an armed guard, and the latter was delighted to later recount that he had found a new source of orchids in the jungle, albeit in rather gruesome circumstances—growing on a pile of human remains.

Inevitably, given the great riches at stake—valuable plants could change hands for more than $1000 per plant, roughly equivalent to $24,390 in today’s money—the teams of orchid hunters developed fierce rivalries. Once a new species had been discovered, the collectors would strip the area to prevent their rivals from obtaining any of the new plants, devastating the environment in the process. On one occasion, orchid hunter William Arnold wrote to Sander to reveal he had been forced to pull a gun on his rival while collecting plants in Venezuela. Sander replied advising him to follow his enemy, collect what he collected, and then, when the opportunity arose, to urinate on the rival’s plants in the hopes of destroying his haul.

After nearly a hundred years of orchidelirium, the madness ended almost as suddenly as it had begun—increased botanical knowledge and the development of more sophisticated greenhouses meant that orchids no longer needed to be imported and could be cultivated in Europe. And of course, as soon as the plants became easily sourced, their value and cachet dropped. Today one can pick up an orchid for as little as $15—meaning that orchid hunters need not risk their lives for these amazing plants, and anyone can own a slice of the exotic.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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