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Beyond the Twinkie: 5 Other Hostess Products We're Losing

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The corporate future of Hostess Brands is hanging by a mere thread, and the Internet is all a-Twitter with Twinkie talk. But there’s more than just a golden snack cake at risk here. Here are five other Hostess products that could vanish forever.

1. Wonder Bread


Taggart Baking vice president Elmer Cline was doubly inspired when he attended the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway in 1921. His company was about to launch a new loaf of bread and it needed a name. He was filled with a sense of wonder as he saw the multi-colored balloons floating above him, and both a name and a logo were born.

In the early part of the 20th century, a disease called beriberi—along with rickets, pellagra and other afflictions caused by vitamin deficiency—afflicted millions of Americans. In 1940, the U.S. government announced a plan to enrich wheat flour with B and D vitamins, but participation by commercial bakeries was strictly voluntary. In 1941, Wonder Bread became the first national bread to sell vitamin-enriched bread (“builds strong bodies [eventually] 12 ways”) and after encouraging results other brands followed suit and beriberi was soon relegated to mentions on Gilligan’s Island.

2. Ding-Dongs


Wikimedia Commons/Larry D. Moore

The popular foil-wrapped cream-filled chocolate hockey pucks have been known by a variety of names over the years, prompting savvy consumers to ask: What is the difference between a Ding-Dong, a Big Wheel and a King Don? When Hostess first debuted the frosted cake in 1967 they christened it “Ding-Dong” and used a ringing bell as an audio “logo” in TV commercials. However, competitor Drake’s Cakes already had a similar product for sale on the East Coast called a Ring Ding. So, to avoid confusion, the Hostess Ding-Dong was labeled “Big Wheel” in certain markets east of the Mississippi.

Drake’s Cakes and Hostess merged for a time in the 1980s and the snacks became universally known as Ding-Dong. Alas, the harmony was short-lived, and when the two companies parted ways, Hostess chose to use the sound-alike name King Don (instead of the previous Big Wheel) to let consumers know it was the same ol’ Ding-Dong they knew and loved.

3. Fruit Pies

During the 1970s, actress Ann Blyth served as the spokeswoman for Hostess Snack Cakes. One TV commercial showed her carrying a large silver platter filled with snack cakes (including Twinkies and Ding Dongs) and fruit pies during a lavish dinner party, offering them to her “movie star” friends. In case the name Ann Blyth doesn’t ring a bell, we’ll let Designing Women's Charlene explain:

4. Sno Balls


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Those furry little mounds of sugar called Sno Balls weren’t always uniformly pink. Hostess introduced this confection in 1947, and its immediate success was attributed partly to America’s post-WWII indulgence in sugar after it was no longer rationed. (It had been a long time since consumers had tasted marshmallow!) For a while, packages of Sno Balls featured one white, as Nature intended coconut to be, and one dyed pink as a novelty. When feedback indicated that customers much preferred the pretty pink cakes, that color became standard. Today you’ll only find differently-colored Sno Balls around certain holidays—white for Winter, orange for Halloween, etc.

5. Hostess Cupcakes


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Hostess employee D.R. Rice was charged with updating the company’s cupcake to make it stand out from other similar snacks on retail display racks. He not only implemented the cream filling in 1950 (using the same injector system employed on the Twinkie assembly line), but also added the squiggle of white icing across the top of each cake. Hostess states that the “perfect” cupcake has seven loops in the squiggle—so if you ever find one with more or less loops, you might want to save it as a rare misprint. If the starting bid on a Twinkie on eBay is $8000, imagine how much cash you'd get for that cupcake!

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technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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