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Green Beans are Good for Your Heart

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Over the years, you've been subjected treated to tales from my garden. We've had posts about tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins (actually two about pumpkins), and corn. Well, not about my corn, but my corn didn't do too well this year. What did well this year was beans. I hadn't grown beans in quite a few years because the rabbits in my old neighborhood loved them. They probably would have enjoyed the beans, but they couldn't wait that long and ate the plants as soon as they sprouted. But the only critters we've seen in the new neighborhood are ducks, geese, and squirrels, and they prefer corn, so we planted two rows of beans this year.


If you don't have rabbits around, beans are extraordinarily easy to grow. Push a bean a couple inches under the soil, and wait. Well, we enriched the soil thoroughly with compost and horse manure, and drought conditions meant the garden had to be watered often this year, so your mileage may vary. Our beans grew well. By the time this picture was taken in August, they were already starting to look tired. I prefer bush beans so I don't have to build a trellis for vines.


Check your bean plants often. You can't tell whether you have any to pick until you lift the plant and peek underneath. Then you may be surprised! Still, you must train your eye to see what to pick, as the pods look exactly like the plant stems. Move the plant around to get a look from every angle. You'll get used to it, because you have to pick beans every day. The tastiest beans have not reached full size. Once they are bigger than a #2 pencil, the pods tend to turn tough and lose taste.


Then comes the snapping part. Wash your beans to remove dust and leaves, then break off the stems and the pointy ends. When I was young, this also involved pulling the "string" from your string beans, usually down both sides of the pod. If you missed a string, the bean would be hard to eat and someone would complain about getting them stuck in their teeth. However, I planted a stringless hybrid (Burpee's tenderpod) so there are no strings attached. Then snap the beans into pieces. Breaking them into smaller pieces, about two inches, makes it easier to fit plenty of beans into a jar. If you're cooking them fresh, you can leave them long or just break them once. There's something very satisfying about hearing the "snap" that reassures you the beans are fresh, firm, and tasty.


On some canning forum, a newbie asked if she could just line beans up on a cutting board and cut them with a knife. The canner said something like, uh, yes, you can. I thought NO! Don't do that. Not only would it take more time, but it takes the fun out of processing beans. Snapping beans takes me back to my childhood, sitting on the front porch with a bushel or two, helping Grandma break them. It's a mindless but satisfying use of your hands that gives you time to chat or to think. While I broke beans, I thought about how I would write this post.


Beans can be packed in the jars raw, but they will pack better if you boil them a little first. Put the beans in the jars first without the water, or else you'll end up canning too much water and too few beans. You can burn yourself separating beans from boiling water, so don't hurry.


After filling the jars, I shake them a little to make the beans settle, then I can get more in each jar. That's when you add salt, a half-teaspoon for each pint. Then pour the cooking water over them, or boiling water if you packed them raw. Leave an inch of "head space" at the top of the jar, to allow for food expansion and the eventual vacuum seal. Add the lids (which have been sitting in boiling water) and screw rings. The actual canning must be done according to the directions that come with your pressure canner, or you can get them online.


Canning beans require a pressure canner, because they are a low-acid food needing a higher canning temperature than a boiling-water canner can provide. Under pressure, the temperature will go to 240 degrees instead of 212. Pressure canners can be intimidating at first, but when you have all the steps down, it's faster and more pleasant than boiling tons of water. By the way, those spots on the stove aren't stains; they are actual holes worn in the finish.


Fresh beans cooked with salt pork is a delicious tradition that smells (and tastes) like summer. Grandma used to simmer beans for an hour or two, but Grandma was used to mushy food. Or maybe that recipe came about because they had tough, stringy bean pods. Ten to fifteen minutes is all you need for fresh, tender beans, and most of that time is to get the pork flavor rendered. Serve the beans without the hunks of salt pork (someone at the table might hand them to the dog), but put them back in the leftovers to refrigerate. Your beans will taste even better the next day. Canned beans are cooked, and only need to be warmed up. They won't have the simmered-in pork flavor, but some people add a dash of bacon grease when they heat canned beans.


After the canning process, let the pressure canner sit until the pressure is all gone before you open it -this will take some time. Remove the jars, which may still boil internally as they sit on your counter. The sight is always a slight freakout. Let the jars cool for several hours before you test the seals (they should be slightly concave, and will not flex if properly sealed). Any jars that aren't properly sealed should be reprocessed, or refrigerated to be eaten soon. I've got five dozen pints and a dozen quarts of beans canned already, and I've cooked or given away almost as many. Giving away beans is a good way to reduce your workload, but if they are going to Grandma, you might want to help her snap them, or even do it for her. And the garden is still producing, although the harvest has slowed down a bit. Those plants are tired by now.

You won't save any money by canning your own green beans. Store-bought beans are fairly cheap, and you don't have to buy jars or a pressure canner. But home-canned produce tastes better, and kids are more likely to eat their vegetables if they helped plant, pick, and snap each bean individually.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]