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Dietribes: Watermelon

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With spring now here and summer just around the corner, let's talk about a favorite warm-weather food. Ladies and gentlemen, coming in at 92% water, the watermelon! Mark Twain wrote in Puddin'head Wilson that "The true southern watermelon is a boon apart and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world's luxuries, king by the grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat." Couldn't have said it better myself. Now let's get to some facts.

"¢ According to the Cambridge History of Food, "Archaeological data suggest [watermelons] were first cultivated in ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago, where representations of watermelons appeared on wall paintings and watermelon seeds and leaves were deposited in Egyptian tombs [...] Their first recorded appearance in Great Britain dates to 1597," after which they made their way to the Americas where they have enjoyed a rich cultural history. Today, China is the largest producer of watermelons.

"¢ Examples of watermelon fans in the early United States include Thomas Jefferson, who was an enthusiastic grower of watermelons at his Monticello estate, and Henry David Thoreau. As written in a collection of Thoreau manuscripts that was published in 1999: "I have no respect for those who cannot raise melons or who avoid them as unwholesome." / "When I go a-berrying in my boat or carriage, I frequently carry watermelons for drink. It is the most agreeable and refreshing wine in a convenient cask, and most easily kept cool."

"¢ Watermelons come in many shapes and sizes. In 1954, C. Fredric Andrus developed a breed of watermelon called the Charleston Gray, revolutionary because of its oval (as opposed to round) "“ and therefore stackable "“ shape, as well as its resistance to disease. Even more stackable: the square watermelon...


"¢ The largest watermelon on record belongs to Bill Carson of Arrington, TN, who in 1990 grew one that weighed in at 262 pounds. He may have been outdone for largest watermelon though by this water tower in Luling, Texas.

"¢ The science behind thumping a watermelon. I don't claim to be an expert, but I have been known to pick a good one or two based on a hardy knock. I also love seeing men and women at the grocery store wrestle down melons on the floor, listening intently for just the right note.

"¢ One of my high school teachers used to say, "if it's wet and not yours, don't touch it." But what if it's watermelon snow? This phenomena occurs only in very specific conditions, but causes impacted snow to take on a pink color and, in an even more impressive manner, the smell of a watermelon. Don't get too excited, though. Turns out it's just algae.

"¢ I'm pretty lazy, so I very much enjoy seedless watermelons. If you've ever wondered how they came about, this description should set you straight: "The seedless condition is actually sterility resulting from a cross between two plants of incompatible chromosome complements. The normal chromosome number in most living organisms is referred to as 2n. Seedless watermelons are produced on highly sterile triploid (3n) plants, which result from crossing a normal diploid (2n) plant with a tetraploid (4n)." Mmm, does that make you hungry?

Anyone have any good memories that include watermelon? And does anyone know why artificial watermelon flavor tastes nothing like a real watermelon (but is, I must admit, still delicious)?

[Previous Dietribes: Strawberries, Macaroni & Cheese, McIntosh Apples, Smoothies, Coffee, The Sweet Potato, Eggs and Cookies]

"˜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
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.