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Tasty Tidbits About Spam

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In a recent entry, I poked fun at a 1958 "Chinese" recipe printed by Good Housekeeping whose main ingredient was "luncheon meat." Sounds sketchy, right? How many Chinese restaurants have you known that featured fresh deli products straight from the wok?

Then a long-time floss reader, Brian, wrote in from Barcelona. "Luncheon ham (also known as Spam) is actually wildly popular with Asian people," he testified. "My Japanese grandmothers would go crazy for Good Housekeeping may have been more authentic than they knew."

We quickly stuck up a trans-Atlantic correspondence about our shared love of Spam (and all the generic copycats it inspired)—and this story was born.

"¢ The epicenter of the Spam universe is Austin, Minnesota, home of a spam factory and a remarkable museum dedicated to the town's most famous product. Spam has such a worldwide following that Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia—to whom Rastafarians would dedicate many a song—once toured the plant.

"¢ Hormel invented Spam in 1937 and still makes it today. At first, the product had a less-than-charismatic name: "Hormel Spiced Ham."

"¢ If you think there's just one flavor of Spam, you're missing out on a world of flavor. There is also hickory-smoked Spam, hot and spicy Spam, garlic Spam, and—for the dieting Spam-lovers among us —"light" Spam. There's even a collector's edition Spam Golden Honey Grail.

"¢ Hormel sponsors an annual recipe contest called the "Great American Spam Championship," with cooks developing new recipes for this product. Some of the 2006 winners state by state: philly cheesesteak spamwich with garlic mayo (California), a-spam-agus risotto (Alabama), and a "romantic country salad for two" with pecan-crusted spam and sweet-and-sour dressing (Tennessee). Extra points, it seems, are given for creative puns.

play-it-again-spam.jpg"¢ Speaking of puns, author Tamar Myers has developed a series of punny murder-mysteries that feature recipes (The Crepes of Wrath, Between a Wok and a Hard Place, The Hand that Rocks the Ladle). The 2005 installment in her series: Play It Again, Spam.

"¢ In South Korea, Spam is considered an appropriate gift for a guest to give a host or vice versa—which beats the hell out of trying to choose a bottle of wine, doesn't it? In fact, Costco carries a Spam gift pack that will make a perfect holiday gift.

"¢ Hawaii consumes about 7 million cans of Spam per year, which comes out to 5 or 6 cans for every man, woman and child. That's a lot of sodium and gelatinous fat, which in turn is thought to contribute to Hawaii's obesity problem. One very popular snack item is the Spam musubi, as shown on the front of this collector's Spam can...


...[photo courtesy of pomai_05]. It's a traditional Japanese rice ball with a slice of Spam on top, wrapped in a belt of seaweed to keep that sodium-laden delicacy safely attached "“ a SEAtbelt, if you will.

mr-spam.jpg"¢ Since 1997, Hormel has sponsored the Waikiki Spam Jam, where it crowns a Mr. or Miss Spam! The 2006 Mr. Spam, a Mr. Wade Balidoy, won a PlayStation and a year's supply of a certain canned meat product.

"¢ Spam is so popular in some communities that it's infiltrated big chain restaurants. The McDonald's breakfast platter in Hawaii includes Spam. In San Francisco's Japan Town, Denny's serves a breakfast combo with Spam, two eggs, steamed rice, and kimchee. You can also substitute Vienna sausages for the Spam "“ or probably negotiate with the waitress to have both.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]