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Dietribes: Ramen

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ramen.jpg

Possibly considered its own food group to those strapped for cash, Ramen noodles have prominently established themselves in our culture's lexicon of favorite food. But where did they come from? And more importantly, what kind of fascinating facts have we uncovered about this popularly priced pasta?

"¢ In Japan, Ramen is "more than a cheap cup of noodles. It is the national dish, cheaper than sushi, available everywhere and perpetually fashionable. With its rich, meaty broth, ramen is very different from other Japanese soups; in fact the dish is a relatively recent import from China."

"¢ Nissin Foods first introduced an instant form of Ramen in 1958. Weirdly, it was considered a "luxury" item at the time, since most grocers sold fresh noodles (udon) at a fraction of the cost. Still, noodles are no passing fad—in 2005, a 4,000-year-old bowl was unearthed in China.

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"¢ Nissin Foods founder Momofuku Ando died in 2007. The previous year, his company sold 46.3 billion packs and cups of noodles around the world, earning $131 million in profits. He penned an autobiography in 2002 called The Story of the Invention of Instant Ramen, and said in 2005 that he had "realized his dream that noodles can go into space" when a vacuum-packed version traveled with Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi on the space shuttle Discovery.

"¢ The award for Largest Packet of Instant Noodles goes to Indofood, who created a packet of their instant-noodles, "Indomie," that weighed over half a ton (and STILL no doubt costing less than your average organic snack bar).

"¢ Is Ramen worth more than gold? To some, yes. According to the Houston Chronicle, inmates from the Harris County jail bought over 3 million packets of Ramen from the jail commissary (which made it the #1 seller, followed by envelopes), after which they were used primarily for bartering and gambling.

"¢ For those who just can't get enough Ramen, there's the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, which boasts a Ramen-only food court as well as a theme park (the "Ramusement Park"). If that doesn't seem relaxing enough for you, try out the Ramen Spa in Hakone, Japan. Or just try having your noodle-fortune read.

"¢ Forget "spaghetti westerns," here's a film dedicated to Ramen. Tampopo is a comedy revolving around, well, noodles. The trailer is in Japanese, but you get the idea. I can assure that you that I just added it to my movie queue.

OK flossers, what are some of your experiences with Ramen? Also, any recipes for knocking down that killer sodium content? For those relying on Ramen to get them through tough times, don't worry—plenty of people have done it and gone on to bigger things.

Previous 'Dietribes'

Strawberries, Macaroni & Cheese, McIntosh Apples, Smoothies, Coffee, The Sweet Potato, Eggs, Cookies, Watermelon and Tea

"˜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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