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Dietribes: Coffee

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Ah, coffee. Consumed either hot or cold by about one-third of the world's population, it is occasionally worshiped by the tired, possibly hungover masses for its "invigorating" effect, produced, of course, by caffeine. Since there are overwhelming amounts of coffee-related facts out there, let's focus on some coffee firsts.

"¢ According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "One of many legends about the discovery of coffee is that of Kaldi, an Arab goat herder, who was puzzled by the strange antics of his flock. About AD 850, Kaldi supposedly sampled the berries of the evergreen bush on which the goats were feeding and, on experiencing a sense of exhilaration, proclaimed his discovery to the world."

The World Encyclopedia of Coffee tells us that the first coffee house came about in 1686, when an enterprising Italian waiter, Francisco Procopio dei Coltelli, opened Procope's (still in operation). Though a "lemonade shop" in name, "Procope's sumptuous décor and air of sophistication attracted a clientèle keen to distance itself from the more loutish elements of the day." Soon coffee began outselling the other beverages, and Procope's went on to become a literary salon boasting such visitors as Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and later ... Napoleon! [Insert your own growth-stunting coffee joke here.]

"¢ The International Coffee Organization reports that while Brazil is the largest exporter of coffee, the United States is the number one importer. The first license to sell coffee in the US was in Boston to Dorothy Jones in 1770.

folgers-coffee.jpg"¢ Though the company started off simply selling coffee to gold miners, Folgers now boasts that it's America's best selling ground coffee brand.

"¢ Some people love the taste of coffee without wanting to deal with all that pesky caffeine. Fans of decaf can thank German coffee importer Ludwig Roselius, who in 1905 patented a steam process to make caffeine-free coffee without changing the flavor.

"¢ Infamously, coffee played a key role in the 1994 McDonald's lawsuit that resulted in a $2.9 million payout (later reduced in settlement) to an 81-year-old woman who spilled the piping hot beverage on herself. Of course, sometimes coffee on clothing can be a good thing. "When Marilyn Monroe married her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, the ceremony was held earlier than planned. When she realized she didn't have a veil to match her beige dress, Marilyn colored a white one by soaking it in a pan of coffee" (Source: Coffee Lover's Bible).

How do you take your coffee? Where's your favorite place to drink it? Got any other fun coffee facts?

[Previous Dietribes: Strawberries, Macaroni & Cheese, McIntosh Apples, Smoothies]

'Dietribes' appears 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
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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