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Dietribes: Cupcakes

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During college I worked part-time at a daycare. My first day I was with the two-year-olds, and someone's mother brought in cupcakes. The kids regarded the cupcakes warily, then one by one they applied them directly to their faces. Forget taking the paper off, they felt it was sufficient to open their mouths a tiny bit in trout-like fashion, and smush the cupcake, icing first, all over their little faces. After hosing off the squirts, I can give you some advice: despite folklore, cupcakes and toddlers don't mix. But in a less messy fashion, here are some interesting facts about those nevertheless yummy sugary treats:

"¢ According to Crazy About Cupcakes, "The term 'cupcake' is first mentioned in E. Leslie's 'Receipts' of 1828. Breaking with tradition of weighing ingredients at this time the ingredients began to be measured in cups. According to Baking in America by Greg Patent, this was revolutionary because of the tremendous time it saved in the kitchen. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America explains that the cup name had a double meaning because of the practice of baking in small containers—including tea cups."

"¢ Though its true origins are disputed, Hostess cupcakes can now brag about being the best-selling snack cake in history. In 1950 baking executive D.R. "Doc" Rice added the signature seven squiggles and vanilla-crème filling that makes Hostess familiar to us today. And in a move reminiscent of the Twinkie Defense, in 1985 a man sued Hostess claiming that their cupcakes caused him to fall out of a tree and break his bones. Yep.

"¢ American hysteria for cupcakes is well documented. Hillary Clinton even recently promised every American a yearly cupcake on her birthday. But not everyone is so pro-cupcake. In fact, some schools have chosen to ban them as a result of rising rates of obesity.

"¢ Of course, what would a true trend be without a trendy HQ? Magnolia Bakery in New York sees lines around the block for their popular pastries, at times bringing in over $40,000 a week in cupcake sales. It has also, of course, been the inspiration for a very famous SNL Digital Short.

"¢ Speaking of lazy (Sunday or not), there have been several campaigns to get microwave cupcakes off the ground, including Duncan Cups in 1991 and Betty Crocker MicroRave Singles. In the end, it seems the old fashioned way is the best. And if you're planning on doing some baking for others, what's the best way to transport a cupcake? Check this out.

"¢ If you're interested in bucking fashion, forget a traditional cake (how pedestrian!) and consider having cupcakes for your wedding.

"¢ Still can't get enough? Check out this link. Although cupcakes are seen as a kind of wholesome American goodness, one of the editors of this blog is a contributing editor for Penthouse and a former sex columnist for the Village Voice. Still, look at those cupcakes!

Does anyone have any cupcake stories to share? Memories? Mishaps?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜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
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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]