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Stephen Allan

See a Massive Flower Garden in the Dubai Desert

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Stephen Allan

The world’s largest flower garden exists in a place you might not expect. It’s found not in the lush Tuileries of Paris or the Renaissance-era terraces at Villa d’Este in Tivoli, Italy, but in the desert outside Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Opened on Valentine’s Day 2013, the Dubai Miracle Garden is the world leader when it comes to enormous flower gardens, comprising 150 million individual flowers and blowing its nearest competitor, the tulip-based Keukenhof in the Netherlands and its 7 million blooms, out of the water. It's an entire theme park devoted to flowers, featuring peacocks, castles, windmills, houses, cars, a giant woman, and a replica of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, all made out of flowers. You even have to walk through a huge (fake) flower to get inside. At close to 2 million square feet, the complex also includes retail stores, a mosque, a floral clock, and the region’s first butterfly garden.


Being inside is a charming flavor of bizarre, like strolling through a Lewis Carroll book or a flower world in Super Mario Bros., if such things existed. Rainbow blossoms dazzle the eyes in every direction. Some of the more surreal displays include an upside-down flower house and a giant faucet (not made of flowers) suspended in mid-air, pouring water into a small lake. Romance also seems to be a major theme at the park—in keeping with its opening date—with heart-shaped archways and swans perched throughout. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular spot for wedding-related photo shoots.

The bulk of the floral displays stay the same year after year, although each fall—after the garden closes for the blistering hot Arabian summer—a handful of exhibits change. The park currently includes at least 45 different species of flower imported from around the globe, many of which are difficult to cultivate in the desert and rarely seen in the Middle East, such as geraniums, marigolds, calendulas, and petunias.

In addition to being the world’s largest garden in terms of flower count, the Dubai Miracle Garden also holds the current Guinness record for largest flower arrangement. That award was bestowed in December 2016 for a floral structure in the shape of an Airbus A380 that’s 230 feet long and includes more than 500,000 fresh flowers and plants, constructed over a frame built from recycled materials.

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In addition to the large-scale floral sculptures, the Dubai Miracle Garden has a medicinal plant section and a fruits-and-veggies section. Guests are able to make their own salads and teas from the plants, with designated seating areas set up for this purpose. The idea is to educate guests on healthy, unprocessed, plant-based diets, as well as “mindful eating”—knowing what’s in your food and where the ingredients came from. (Perhaps the nearby ice cream and candy vendors are there in order to test visitors on their healthy-eating willpower.)

Aside from the enormous displays, the most impressive thing about the garden is that the whole operation is fed via recycled wastewater. The facility uses a unique drip irrigation system wherein the tubes run under the soil rather than alongside the plants on the surface, thereby helping to avoid evaporation—a major issue with above-ground drip irrigation systems. This subterranean method uses a fraction of the water and energy required in a conventional system—less than a tenth of a gallon of water is required to hydrate a plot that would usually need 2.5 or 3 gallons. That’s a big deal when your garden uses 200,000 gallons of water per day. When the garden opened, its landscapers, Akar Landscaping and Agriculture Company, told Gulfnews.com they wanted to show “it’s possible to green the desert through judicious re-use of waste water, through drip irrigation.”

Considering its location on the arid Arabian Peninsula, this is probably the cleverest—and possibly the only—way to make such a massive, fantastic oasis bloom in a place where water is in very short supply. And that is indeed miraculous.

 
 
 
 
 

All photos by Stephen Allan unless otherwise noted.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

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.”

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