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11 Facts from the American Museum of Natural History's New Food-Themed Exhibit

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A hydrophonic vertical growing system, designed by Windowfarms, in the museum's Weston Pavilion. Photo Courtesy AMNH.

On November 17, the American Museum of Natural History will open a new exhibit, Our Global Kitchen, which examines how food is grown, modified, transported, tasted, and celebrated. "Food is intimately familiar to all of us—and experienced as a daily social ritual—but the complex global system that produces it has critical implications for the health of humans and of Earth's ecological systems," Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum, said at a preview of the exhibit. Visitors will get a chance to see what an Aztec market looked like, participate in tastings, sit at the tables of historical figures, examine various farming practices from around the globe, and learn how hunger and obesity exist side by side.

Here are 11 things we learned during our visit.

1. Five species of beans have been bred into approximately 40,000 varieties.

2. Cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi are all actually the same species: Brassica oleracea.

3. In ancient Aztec markets, cocoa beans were currency, not candy. Thirty cacao beans would buy you a rabbit.

Photo Courtesy AMNH.

4. The bumps on your tongue, called papillae, aren't actually tastebuds—your tastebuds are actually inside those bumps. The more papillae you have, the better you're able to taste—in fact, if you have 30 or more papillae per quarter-inch, you're a super-taster!

5. In parts of Asia and the Middle East, sheep are bred to have fat tails that are so big that they have to be dragged in special carts.

6. Almost every apple you eat is cloned in a process called grafting—live branches from trees that produce sweet apples are attached to the trunks of other trees, which produce apples that are clones of the first tree.

7. Wild chickens like the Red Junglefowl produce approximately 15 eggs a year; domesticated chickens produce 200 to 300 eggs.

8. Americans didn’t start using forks until the mid-1800s,. Before that, they either stabbed food with knives, or ate with their hands. (Europeans adopted forks much earlier.)

9. Young oysters are called spat; 90 percent of Europe's oysters are raised in France at aquatic farms like the one shown in the diorama below.

10. One variety of potato was the primary food in Ireland before the potato famine. It was called the Lumper.

11. In high and middle income countries, each consumer wastes approximately 187 pounds of food each year. In low income countries, that number is 33 pounds.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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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]