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What's the Difference?: Egg Roll vs. Spring Roll

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THE DILEMMA

You find yourself at a Chinese restaurant craving cylindrical food. But of which variety?

WHO YOU CAN IMPRESS

All the folks down at Hunan Garden. No longer do you need to hang your head in shame!

THE QUICK TRICK

If it's got a shell like a deep fried tortilla, it's probably an egg roll. And if you're thinking that deep frying tortillas is awfully American for Chinese food, you're onto something.

THE REASON

The main gustatory difference between a spring roll and its egg cousin is that spring rolls have thin, often translucent flour wrappers and usually aren't fried, while egg rolls have thicker, deep-fried wrappings. Also, spring rolls in America are often filled with carrots and bamboo, while egg rolls are more likely to be filled with meat and bean shoots. Oh, and one other difference: Spring rolls are Chinese; egg rolls probably aren't.
In fact, Chinese cuisine in America is so vastly different from Chinese cuisine in China that many American Chinese restaurants advertise, beneath their English names, the words "Westernized Food" in Chinese.

In the 19th century, the primary audience for Chinese food was railroad workers, a group of people not widely known for their sophisticated palates. Chinese restaurateurs sought to accommodate both Chinese immigrants working the rails and their white coworkers—and in doing so created "fusion cuisine" long before it was hip. While some argue that egg rolls existed in China prior to their appearance in America, many food scholars believe that the egg roll is an American original. Besides the legendary roll, there are many staples of American Chinese food you'll rarely if ever see in China: fried rice, crab Rangoon, chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and General Tso's chicken. Also, fortune cookies (see sidebar). What do all these meals have in common? Frying, which is a staple of American Chinese food but somewhat less important in authentic Chinese cuisine.

As for the spring roll, though, around the late 1980s, Americans began to turn against the very Chinese food they'd helped to invent. No longer could we afford to eat deep-fried, high-sodium foods slathered in MSG. And so more authentic Chinese restaurants started popping up, and with them came the reemergence of the light and healthy spring roll. American Chinese cuisine still dominates the market in small towns, but the number of authentic restaurants grows every year.

HOW THE FORTUNE COOKIE CRUMBLES

Unlike the spring roll, the fortune cookie is not Chinese. And unlike the egg roll, fortune cookies aren't Chinese-American, either. They're actually Japanese-American. Makato Hagiwara, who designed (and for many years lived in) the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, invented the fortune cookie in the early 20th century. He intended the cookie to be a snack for people walking through the tea garden, but the concept became so popular that Chinese restaurants in San Francisco's Chinatown stole the idea. Soon, the cookies were ubiquitous. Sadly, Hagiwara himself ended up suffering from bad fortune: In 1942, he and his family were evicted from the Tea Garden and sent, along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to live in internment camps.

Still confused? Find more answers to life's persistent questions in What's the Difference?, a mental_floss book edited by John Green.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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