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Cooking with Tools

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What we call Southern Ingenuity is a tradition of using what you already have to get the job done. My father would warm his coffee with a propane torch in his workshop to save a trip into the house for a warmup. He wasn't above stirring it with a screwdriver. I also remember him holding a can of beans over a campfire with a pair of pliers. You can do amazing things with tools, including cooking your food.

Drilled Chilli Beef.

When you want to infuse the inside of your roast with flavor, the basic rotary drill makes it so much easier.

Cooking an egg with cellphones.


I was surprised and a bit skeptical when I heard you could cook an egg with two cellphones. It takes quite a bit longer than the conventional methods, but it illustrates the power of things we cannot see.

Update: Don't try this because it won't work. (Thanks, Liz!)

Poached Salmon in a dishwasher.


An urban legend? No, maybe at one time, but there are reports all over the web of people who have poached their salmon in a dishwasherand photographed the results.

Cooking chicken with a volcano.


You have to love a recipe that begins "With a shovel you don't plan on using again..." Cooking chicken or pork with molten lavais an activity restricted to certain locales. This demonstration was done in Hawaii outside the limits of Hawaii Volcanos National Park.

More cooking weirdness, after the jump.

Chili made using a blowtorch.


To be fair, the blowtorch is only used to peel the peppers in this recipe. Going beyond Creme Brulée, I'm sure you can find more uses for a blowtorch in the kitchen if you use your imagination.

Grilled cheese sandwich made with a steam iron.


Surely you remember Johnny Depp making grilled-cheese sandwiches with a steam iron in the movie Benny and Joon. Roy and Laura wanted to see if this would really work, and they posted a photo essay of their efforts.

Prison wine made in a toilet.


This is an experimental re-creation that you really don't want to see a picture of. If you have a weak stomach, you won't want to read the entire description, either. Its not the toilet that might make you queasy, its the fermenting garbage in the bag.

Ice cream made with liquid nitrogen.


Rocket scientists at MIT made ice cream with liquid nitrogenat their ice cream social one summer. I'm sure this is faster than hand-cranking with rock salt, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you, too, are a rocket scientist.

Beer in a coffeemaker.


You brew coffee, don't you? You can brew beer in your coffeemaker, too! These instructions bring the process down to a small scale so it's easier to understand.

Canning tomatoes with a solar cooker.


A solar cooker is actually a cooking tool, but this is so cool I wanted to include it. Canning bushels of tomatoes with boiling water in the kitchen in August is like working in an oven. With a solar cooker, you move the operation outside!

Stew made in a car engine.


Cooking with a car engine is rather well known, thanks to the book Manifold Destiny. I found a Australian with a webpage that illustrates the use of a manifold oven. This gives a whole new meaning to the term "fast food"! Here's a recipe for Manifold Stew.
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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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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]