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Armchair Field Trip: Gorging on Fried Foods at the State Fair of Texas

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Before this week, I would have told you that the Iowa State Fair is arguably the best State Fair in the U.S. After visiting the State Fair of Texas this week, I will tell you that the Iowa State Fair is definitely the best in the U.S. Because I grew up going to the fair, I am more than familiar with delicacies such as the Hot Beef Sundae, Meatballs on a Stick, and, my personal favorite, the Pickle Dawg. However loyal I am to the Iowa State Fair, though, I have to admit that the Texas fair has us beat in one area: variety of fried foods. Purely for research purposes, I made it my mission to sample as many strange foods as I could possibly get my hands on. Check out my in depth and very scientific analysis below.

1. Fried Coke


As in Coca-Cola. I had heard of this before but couldn't quite wrap my head around the concept. Turns out, it's basically just discs of fried dough with Coke syrup and whipped cream on top. I was not impressed at all. My rating: 3/10.

2. Fried Cookie Dough

In a NASCAR box. This was delicious, but rather overwhelming. The inside of the fried cookie dough is exactly like biting into a really underbaked cookie "“ gooey, warm, heavenly. The problem is that they were the size of a small egg and it was just a bit much. Make them bite-sized and we'll call it perfection. My rating: 7/10.

3. Porkchop on a Stick

Oh, the travesty!! This is one of everyone's favorites at the Iowa State Fair, for good reason: they're thick, juicy, delicious and surrounded by a perfect ring of fat (and I don't really even like meat that much). They are to die for. Imagine our surprise, then, when we bought one at the Texas State Fair that was approximately the size of an amoeba. OK, maybe a little bigger, but I thought everything was supposed to be bigger in Texas. This was pathetic. Despite the disappointing porkchop, my friend Mason still managed to eat two of them. Mason's rating: 6/10 (I didn't try this one).

4. Fried Peanut Butter, Jelly and Banana Sandwich

friedpbj.jpgElvis would be proud. Iowa State Fair, take note!! Sure, this sandwich is probably equal to your fat and calorie for an entire month, but it's really damn good. Also, lest you are thinking "fried" as in fried chicken, I should tell you that it's more like corn dog breading "“ sweet, fluffy, delicious. The fried PBJB was AMAZING. My rating: 9/10.

5. Corn on the Cob

Why did I even bother? Iowa is known for its corn "“ the peaches and cream variety is so yummy it doesn't even need butter or salt. This corn was so lackluster that even being drenched in butter couldn't save it. My rating: 1/10.

6. Fried Latte


texasfairoscar.jpgYep. Apparently this is good enough to win the award for best new Texas State Fair food. See, it won this prestigious award (====>)

It's basically just chewy bits of fried dough with chocolate ice cream, coffee granules and whipped cream. It was pretty good, but I'll definitely take the PBJB instead. My rating: 6/10.

7. Miller Lite

Neither fried nor on a stick. I am here to tell you that the Miller Lite in Texas is just as good as it is in Iowa. My rating: 9/10.

8. Fletcher's Corn Dog

I am told that the State Fair of Texas is the birthplace of the corn dog, so of course I had to see what all the fuss was about. I thought, you know, a corn dog is a corn dog. I was wrong. I suspect it comes down to personal taste, but I really prefer my corn dog batter to be a bit sweeter. Eh. My rating: 5/10.

Overall, I'm glad we had the change to go, but give me my Iowa State Fair any day. Even the butter sculpture at the Texas State Fair fell short. Seriously, this:


Compared to this?


I think the butter speaks for itself.

Now it's your turn. What's the best part of your state's state fair? How about the most wonderful/artery-clogging indigenous fried food?

Previous Armchair Field Trips:

The Corn Palace
The International Spy Museum
The Grassy Knoll
Intercourse, Pennsylvania
Ogunquit, Maine
Aquinnah, Massachusetts

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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]