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Dietribes: Strawberries

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A truly international fruit, the modern strawberries we feast upon today come from an accidental hybrid of North and South American species by way of Europe in the 18th century, although many varieties of the plant were enjoyed as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. Here are some facts and figures relating to this most beloved berry:

1. William Butler (1535-1618) once said, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did." Apparently many people agree, because Americans eat 3.4 pounds of fresh strawberries a year, plus another 1.8 pounds frozen. California produces 75% of the nation's strawberry supply, yielding 21 tons of strawberries per acre among the 23,000 acres of strawberries planted in California each year. Strawberry fields, indeed, forever.

strawberry-shortcake.jpg 2. Daring to show its seeds on the outside, the strawberry is no sissy fruit "“ one serving (roughly eight berries) has more vitamin C than an orange. On the softer side, it also happens to be the namesake of everyone's favorite resident of Niceville.

3. Fans of this delectable fruit are in good company. France's King Louis XI held a poetry competition to compose the best ode to the Strawberry. The winner:

"Quand de juin s'éveille le mois / Allez voir les fraises des bois / Qui rougissent dans la verdure / Plus rouge que le vif corail / Balançant comme un éventail / Leurs feuilles a triple découpure."

["When the month of June comes in, go and see the wood strawberries blushing red among the greenery, redder than bright coral, their three-lobed leaves spreading like a fan."] June is an excellent time to consume strawberries, although in the U.S., May is National Strawberry Month.

4. The French are big fans of the strawberry, even attempting to trademark its scent. (The company who attempted failed, but did manage to trademark the scent of freshly cut grass.) Farther back, Thérésa Tallien, a powerful figure during the French Revolution (nicknamed Our Lady of Thermidor), used to take baths full of strawberries "“ allegedly 22 pounds of them "“ for the beautification of her skin.

5. Strawberries figure prominently in literature and in lore. In Othello, Desdemona's handkerchief is decorated with images of the fruit. Despite being considered a symbol of Venus because of its heart shape and red color, strawberries are sometimes seen negatively, as in the case of Anne Boleyn, who is rumored to have sported a strawberry-shaped birthmark on her neck that some claimed proved she was a witch.

6. Used medicinally in the past (including its leaves and roots), the strawberry has been said to soften skin, whiten teeth, and alleviate symptoms of infections, gout, diseases of the blood, fainting and melancholy, probably because (as we now know) strawberries contain antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and a hearty dose of Vitamin C.

If you think you are the master of strawberry-related facts, try our vintage quiz.

Dietribes will appear every Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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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]