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In space, no one can hear you burp

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Astronauts on the International Space Station got a taste treat last month that would make plenty of Earthbound proles jealous: a meal from Emeril "BAM" Lagasse, who'll be chatting with (and hopefully getting four-star reviews from) the spacemen tomorrow. On the menu: jambalaya, mashed potatoes with bacon, green beans with garlic, rice pudding, and mixed fruit. Hungry yet?

If the cuisine has as much spice as Lagasse is known for, all the better for the astronauts. In space, some astronauts say that food tastes blander than on Earth. One of the most requested space foods is shrimp with cocktail sauce because of its spicy kick. The ISS has a stash of hot sauce, garlic paste and Thai hot sauce to spice up food. According to astronaut Ed Lu, who lived on the ISS in 2003, the station has "enough hot sauce to feed all of Thailand."

I guess that explains why Tang is so, well, Tangy. After the jump, a recipe for space cornbread dressing you can make at home, courtesy of NASA.

Space Cornbread Dressing

12 cups cornbread, prepared, crumbled
3.75 cups chicken broth
2.5 cups onions, chopped
1.5 cups celery, chopped
.25 cups butter, unsalted
.75 tsp salt
1.25 tsp poultry seasoning
.5 tsp black pepper
2 tsp parsley flakes, dried
1 tsp sage, rubbed

Preheat convection oven to 325° F. Conventional oven should be heated to 350° F.
Grease 9 x 13-inch baking pan.
Peel onions and puree in food processor. Place in bowl. Set aside.
Finely chop celery in food processor. Add to onion puree. Set aside.
Heat sauté pan over medium heat. Melt butter and sauté onion and celery mixture until soft (about 5 minutes).
Add to crumbled, prepared cornbread. Mix well. In a separate bowl, combine salt, poultry seasoning, black pepper, parsley and sage.
Add to cornbread-sautéed vegetable mixture.
Add chicken broth. Mix well. Spoon dressing into prepared baking pan.
Bake for approximately 35 minutes at 325° F or 350° F, depending on oven.

For space flight preparation: Baked dressing is transferred to metal tray and freeze-dried accordingly. One serving of cornbread dressing shall weigh approximately 145 g prior to freeze-drying and 50 g after freeze-drying.

* Please note: This recipe is based on the "formulations" for actual space flight missions. Actual measurements are estimates.

* It should also be noted, "space flight food" recipes are designed with significant flavoring to compensate for the freeze-drying process.

* Space Flight Food recipes are created using "formulations" instead of traditional recipes. This is because formulations are more "reproducible" than traditional recipes. Formulations use percentages and weights, which are exact measurements, as opposed to typical U.S. recipes that are more subjective and more susceptible to user errors.

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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