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Crazy Cold War Recipes

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Given the strong-arm tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, some observers expect a return of the Cold War. If that prediction proves true, maybe the new Cold War will bring back some of the kitschy old recipes below, found in vintage cookbooks. Predictably, they emphasize canned veggies and preserved meats—perfect fare for bomb-shelter dining.

Best casserole: Frankfurter Crown

What can't you do with a hotdog? This recipe card, printed by Curtis Publications in 1973, combines American's favorite encased meat with green beans, potatoes, and bacon in a hot dish. The card suggests you serve it with coleslaw and rhubarb.

3 slices bacon
1 cup chopped onion
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 cup milk
3 cups sliced cooked potatoes
1 cup cooked cut green beans
1 pound frankfurters

Cook everything but the wieners and mix to form a filling. Then dump it into a casserole dish ingeniously lined with vertically stacked frankfurter halves. Serve with a straight face.

Best Chinese recipe that contains nothing Asian whatsoever: Ham Ling Lo

The Cold War spread to Asia at about the same time as American cookbook editors began to feature "ethnic" dishes, including many with Chinese themes. But not all of them were very authentic, as this offering from Good Housekeeping's Casserole Book (1958) shows. Maybe the celery counts as Chinese? But where's the soy sauce, for crying out loud?

2 lb. pared white potatoes
2 12 oz. cans luncheon ham, grated
1 can pineapple slices
5 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup minced green peppers
1 cup sliced celery

Layer ham with veggies, topping with pineapple, in a casserole dish. Bake for 45 minutes or until the smell drives your company screaming from the house.

Best dish for a Tupperware party: Sandwich Loaf

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Not since the "˜70s has it been fashionable to combine mayonnaise, cream cheese, and sour cream in a single dish. Add white bread and you've got the makings for an impressive sandwich-cake on which you can draw faces or special messages with mustard. Serves at least 15 people, not including the dozens who suddenly remember they're not hungry.

4 hard-boiled eggs
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped pimentos
1-pound can salmon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 pounds cream cheese
1 cup sour cream
Small can chopped olives
2 tablespoons minced scallions
2 tablespoons minced celery
1 tablespoon minced onion
2 tablespoon walnuts
1 loaf white bread, crust removed and cut into five horizontal layers

Combine salmon with mayonnaise, eggs, lemon juice, olives, pimentos, etc. Spread this concoction between the layers of bread as you would a sandwich filling. Finish by "frosting" the outside of the loaf with cream cheese. Slice vertically with a bread knife while suppressing your gag reflex.

Chris Weber is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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