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Dietribes: Peeling the Onion

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The Onion. No, not that Onion. Rather, the delectable vegetable that adds a great deal of flavor to your meal and aroma to your kitchen. At the workhouse, Oliver Twist was lucky to get "Three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Saturdays." I can't imagine eating an onion plain, but perhaps some of you have. For now, shake or stir your Gibson cocktail (garnished with an onion, of course), and learn more about this fantastic foodstuff.

"¢ According to the Cambridge World History of Food, "The onion may have originated in Persia (Iran) and Beluchistan (eastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan), but it is also possible that onions were indigenous from Palestine to India [...] the consumption of onions is depicted in the decoration of Egyptian tombs dating from the Early Dynasty Period, c. 2925"“c. 2575 B.C. Onions were used as religious offerings, put on altars and, as is known from mummified remains,were employed in preparing the dead for burial (placed about the thorax and eyes, flattened against the ears, and placed along the legs and feet and near the pelves). The Greek historian Herodotus reported that onions, along with radishes and garlic, were a part of the staple diet of the laborers who built the Great Pyramid at Giza (2700"“2200 B.C.)"

"¢ Not merely a tasty addition to many dishes, onions are also thought to relieve hypertension, hyperlipemia and coronary artery disease. Also, onions contain antioxidative activity, which can be increased by microwave heating or boiling.

"¢ Onions vary in size, shape, color and pungency. For instance, warmer climates produce onions with a milder, sweeter flavor than do other climates. From the Encyclopedia Britannica, a quick field guide to onion varieties:

"“ Globe-shaped onions may be white, yellow, or red. They have strong flavor and are used chiefly for soups, stews, and other prepared dishes and for frying.

"“ Bermuda onions are large and flat, with white or yellow color and fairly mild taste. They are often cooked and may be stuffed, roasted, or French-fried. They are also sliced and used raw in salads and sandwiches.

"“ Spanish onions are large, sweet, and juicy, with color ranging from yellow to red. Their flavor is mild, and they are used raw and sliced for salads and sandwiches and as a garnish.

"“ Italian onions are flat, with red color and mild flavor. They are used raw for salads and sandwiches, and their red outer rings make an attractive garnish.

"“ Pearl onions are not a specific variety but are small, round, white onions harvested when 25 mm (1 inch) or less in diameter. They are usually pickled and used as a garnish and in cocktails. Small white onions that are picked when between 25 and 38 mm in diameter are used to flavor foods having fairly delicate taste, such as omelets and other egg dishes, sauces, and peas. They are also served boiled or baked.

"“ Green onions, also called scallions and spring onions, are young onions harvested when their tops are green and the underdeveloped bulbs are 13 mm or less in diameter. Their flavor is mild, and the entire onion, including top, stem, and bulb, is used raw in salads and sauces, as a garnish, and also as a seasoning for prepared dishes.

"¢ Of course, one of the most popular varieties of onion is the Vidalia because of its mild flavor. The Vidalia often fetches as much as three times the price of ordinary onions. Grown in Georgia, it will not cause "your nose to run, your heart to burn, or your sweetheart to gag" (at least according to Jimmy Carter's former press secretary). Tests have shown that the sugar content in the Vidalia is highest of all; it seems to have something to do with the mild climate and the paucity of sulfur in the sandy soil.

"¢ Because of its popularity, the Vidalia has had to contend with its share of impostors. In 1986, a case went to the Georgia Supreme Court against onions grown in Texas and California that called themselves "Vidalia Sweet Onions." After the case was settled, the Georgia legislature passed a law that stated only onions grown in specific counties of Georgia could be labeled as Vidalia.

"¢ If onions are so wonderful, why do they make you cry? Find out by reading this article, which describes the chemical process, along with a few remedies. A friend once told me if you put a wooden spoon in your mouth it works to stave off the tears. This is as of yet untested .... has it worked for anyone else?

onion-goggles.jpg"¢ If all else fails for the very sensitive, consider purchasing your own pair of onion goggles, or finding scientifically meddled-with, tear-free onions.

"¢ First Prize at the 2007 Onion and Leek Show went to Paul Rochester for an onion over 15 lbs. His secret? Playing swing tunes to the plants, something I once tried for a science-fair project, to negligible results (my violin playing did better than the plant which I talked to, though. It died).

"¢ After all this onion business, you may need a bit of parsley to get rid of that onion breath ... at least, according to the National Onion Association that is.

"¢ What are you favorite ways to use an onion? I often caramelize it and include it in everything from stir fry to pizza to a scrumptious gourmet grilled cheese sandwich (though I don't cook them for nearly as long as that site recommends).

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other 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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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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]