Original image

Dietribes: A Little Cherry History

Original image


Cherries are everywhere in our cultural landscape—from Cherry Coke to Chekhov's famous "The Cherry Orchard" to Mary Poppins, where the Banks family lived on Cherry Tree Lane. And who can forget about old George Washington and that whole chopping thing? (Whether it's true or not, we all remember!) Cherries are everywhere, so let's find out a little bit more about this fragrant fruit.

"¢ Cherries share their genus, Prunus, with almonds, peaches, plums and apricots, and can grow in nearly every climate and condition in the world (including, apparently, the tundra). Edible cherry varieties originated primarily in Europe and western Asia. Although around 75 percent of world production originates in Europe, the United States also produces a number of species, with which you can acquaint yourself here.

"¢ My personal introduction to cherries came with the Maraschino, probably the most fake-but-still-edible "fruit" to exist, or as this article puts it, "the artificially flavored brine cherry, survivor of red dye cancer scares, that sits at the bottom of a Manhattan cocktail or at the summit of an ice cream sundae." Maraschino cherries were developed at Oregon State University in the 1920s, and the school still offers a course in the matter: Food Science and Technology 102—the Maraschino Cherry. Food for thought!

"¢ You may have seen the link I posted Saturday of a time-lapse video documenting cherry blossoms in Brooklyn. This type of tree came from one of several varieties originally given as a gift from Tokyo to the United States as a symbol of friendship. In fact, the Japanese also sent cherry trees to the State of Utah after WWII. The cherry was selected as the state fruit of Utah in 1997.

"¢ Bing cherries are the most popular variety in the US, with trees producing large, sweet fruit and wonderfully fragrant white flowers. The exact details of Bing's origin are not clear, but it was named in honor of a nursery foreman (and possible cultivator) by the name of Ah Bing. The first tree came from the seed of another new variety, Republican, in 1875. Today there are over 1000 varieties of sweet cherries, but Bing still tops the list both in popularity and production.

"¢ Cherries are not only tasty but also may have some incredible health benefits. Studies at the University of Michigan suggest that tart cherries can alter factors linked to heart disease and diabetes. Another study suggests tart cherries fight jet lag, and possibly arthritis.

"¢ Cherries are not without their myths. According to some accounts, President Zachary Taylor died July 9, 1850, after getting sick from eating cherries and milk at a July 4 celebration. It's been long believed cholera was the cause, but that still has not stopped generations of maternal warnings against the deadly cherries-and-milk combination (just like Pop Rocks and soda, your stomach will obviously explode). You have been warned!

spoonbridge.jpg"¢ For more fun with cherries, check out the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture—a landmark at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden by husband and wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. The cherry alone weighs 1,200 pounds. Learn more about how it was made here. Also try your hand at the International Spitting Competition. The current World Record stands at around 100 feet.

"¢ Reward yourself after a long day and snuggle up to an easy-to-make natural heating pad filled with cherry pits. Dried cherry pits retain heat and can be used to make heating pads or bed warmers.

So what's your favorite way to eat a cherry? Any delectable recipes to share?

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.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
Original image
A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]