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Dietribes: The Sweet Potato

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I was averse to the idea of the sweet potato for many years before recently giving it another shot. But after one glorious, butter and cinnamon laden mouthful ... BAM! It's now one my favorite foods, whether baked, roasted or in fry form. Here are some facts about this orange delight, an incredibly healthy food, and a great way to get fiber, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.

"¢ The sweet potato's earliest cultivation is thought to date back to around 750 BC in South America. Slowly making its way up through Central America and eventually into the awareness of explorers such as Christopher Columbus, the sweet potato crossed continents and became a favorite among Elizabethan-era English, who enjoyed its natural sweetness in times of sugar scarcity.

"¢ Speaking of which, here is a discussion of Shakespeare's mention of the tasty tater in the Merry Wives of Windsor.

sweet-potato-2.jpg"¢ A staple of personal crops grown in the South, the sweet potato has long been used as a substitute for coffee, with pieces being dried, parched, ground, and brewed. Though Vardaman, Mississippi, claims to be the Sweet Potato Capital of the World, approximately 90% of the worlds' crop is grown in Asia, and is the 6th principal world food crop (more facts here).

"¢ According to History of Food, "The people of the Antilles make a drink from the sweet potato, ouycou, from a Caribbean Indian recipe. The Empress Josephine tried to bring the sweet potato back into fashion "“ Louis XV had been very fond of it "“ but its 'exotic' flavour put off the general public, who preferred ordinary and more plebeian Potato."

"¢ Forget the peanut. George Washington Carver came up with 118 different ways of using Sweet Potatoes, including as starch, tapioca, mock coconuts, molasses, breakfast foods, flour, ink and synthetic rubber. Additionally, the ocarina is often referred to as a sweet potato because of its shape and "sweet" sound. (Gamer Fact: the ocarina is the instrument played by Link in the Legend of Zelda).

"¢ What is the difference between a Sweet Potato and a Yam? They are members of different botanical families, but are frequently confused. For a start, Yams have more starch and less sugar than sweet potatoes. For a little etymology on the word "yam," SweetPotato.org says "African slaves in the South called the sweet potato 'nyami' because it reminded them of the starchy, edible tuber of that name that grew in their homeland. The Senegalese word 'nyami' was eventually shortened to the word 'yam.'"

What's your favorite way to eat a sweet potato? Do you cover it with marshmallows? Any recipes to share?
[Previous Dietribes: Strawberries, Macaroni & Cheese, McIntosh Apples, Smoothies, Coffee]

'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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