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Food, dangerous food

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You don't have to swallow food for it to be dangerous -- or even kill you. As proof we offer this, mental_floss' honor roll of the weirdest food-related disasters in history.

1. The great beer deluge of 1814
Where it went down: London Towne's down-in-the-mouth East End.
What happened: When a 20-foot-high vat of beer fermenting inside the Meux and Company Brewery burst, the collateral impact smashed open several other large vats, creating a chain reaction. When the flood of suds hit the surrounding streets, it was more than a million liters strong.
Why 1,224,000 liters of free beer was considered problematic: Because it killed nine people -- eight from drowning and one from alcohol poisoning. The tidal wave of beer rushed down several city blocks, destroying two homes, knocking over walls and flooding basements. Survivors scooped up as much of the deadly brew as they could, in buckets, pots and cupped hands.
The verdict: A judge cleared the brewery of liability, calling the accident an "act of God." (I know some frat brothers who would agree.)

2. Boston's infamous molasses flood
When: About 100 years after the beer deluge, on January 15, 1919.
What went down: A six-story tank filled with 2.5 million gallons of molasses, thanks to an explosion inside the tank. 8 to 15-foot waves rushed down the streets of Boston's North End as quickly as 35 miles per hour, pushing buildings off their foundations, overturning cars and wagons and molassessing 21 people to death. Many rescuers became mired in the sticky goo, and so needed rescuing themselves.

Coincidence? Much of the molasses in question was to be used in making liquor. The day after the accident, Congress enacted Prohibition.
Legend has it: On hot summer days, you can still smell the sickly-sweet odor -- of disaster.
The verdict: Lawyers for the distilling company tried to pin the disaster on anarchist saboteurs, but despite this paid out millions in settlements to victims' families.

3. The Dublin Whiskey Fire
When: June 26, 1875.
What went down: According to the Illustrated London News, 1,800 "puncheons" of Irish whiskey (that is, casks) -- or about 560,000 liters of the stuff -- flowed down the streets of Dublin's run-down Liberties district.
Why that was a problem again? It was on fire. The lake of flaming whisky eventually burned three square blocks of the city; firefighters couldn't turn their hoses on it, for fear of spreading it even more. Crowds "took off their hats and boots to collect the whisky," and four people died "from the effects of drinking the stuff, which was burning hot as it flowed."
The verdict: The distillery got off Scot-free (so to speak); apparently it was the whiskey's fault, for being so flammable.

4. The near-sinking of the Cassarate
When: July 1972, off the coast of Wales.
The culprit: 1,500 tons of dry tapioca, stored in the ship's cargo hold.
What went down: The ship, almost, thanks in part to a fire that started on its deck. Overzealous fire crews extinguished the blaze, but the combination of water and heat cooked the tapioca -- which began to exapand dangerously, threatening to tear the Cassarate apart.
And? Despite the incredible pressure exerted on it by the quivering, glutinous mass in its belly, the ship held -- but just barely. Afterward, a relieved Cardiff fire chief credited his men with defusing the "ticking tapioca timebomb" -- 1,000,000 bowls-worth according to some estimates.
The verdict: Children have always hated tapioca -- now firefighters do too.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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