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Happy Birthday, Big Mac! 4 Stories about America's Best-Known Burger

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McDonald's best-known burger turns 40 this year. And since professional ethics prevent us from revealing the ingredients of the Special Sauce, we'll try to make up for that by sharing a few other "secrets" behind those two all-beef patties and their signature accoutrements.

1. The Genius behind the "˜Mac

Back when Michael James "MJ" Delligatti became interested in opening his own restaurant in the mid-1950s, he visited a restaurant show in Chicago. When he happened by the McDonald's booth, the McRepresentative invited Delligatti to visit a newly opened McDonald's francise nearby. After doing some research, MJ realized that if he opened a Mickey D's, the money he'd save on buying paper goods through the company would pay his franchise fee. He opened a McDonald's in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1957 and did very well. Yet, he felt something was missing from the menu. Parents bought burgers for their youngsters, but MJ believed that a larger, more "adult" sandwich would encourage Mom and Dad to dine along with the kids. Before adding anything to his menu, however, he had to get approval from Headquarters. The Corporate office finally agreed to let him try a new burger with the proviso that he only use ingredients already on hand. He christened his creation the "Big Mac" and sold it for 49 cents. Sales spiked so much that Corporate couldn't help but notice and add the Big Mac to their national menu in 1968.

2. The Slim Man who Eats Nothing but Big Macs

Picture 9.pngThose stodgy ol' spoilsport nutritionists can drone on and on about how dangerous Big Macs are"¦saturated fat"¦blah blah"¦cholesterol"¦blah blah"¦heart disease"¦ But we have only to look at Don Gorske of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, for McReassurance. He has been eating at least two Big Macs per day since 1972, and has since consumed over 20,000 of the double-decker burgers. Yet at six feet tall he maintains a weight of about 180 lbs. and an admirable cholesterol count of 140. Gorske admits that he never eats fries, just Big Macs, so perhaps that's the secret.

3. More Memorable than the Commandments

It was a fated affair: McDonald's was looking for a new ad agency in 1970, and Keith Reinhard, a creative director at Needham, Harper & Steers, had done his homework. He'd posted himself outside of several different McDonald's outlets and polled customers as they exited on what they liked best. His research determined that Mom loved not having to cook, and Mickey D's was quick and affordable (unlike most family-style sit-down restaurants). He came up with the slogan "You deserve a break today" and landed the prestigious McDonald's account for his company. Not long after that, he coined what seemed like a hopelessly awkward jingle for the Big Mac: "Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun." However, a clever "man on the street" commercial campaign showing ordinary citizens trying to recite the phrase ingrained the run-on burger description in everyone's mind and became a classic. A 2007 survey by Kelton Research found that of 1,000 Americans who identified themselves as Christians, 80% could accurately recite the Big Mac ingredients jingle, while only 60% could name all of the Ten Commandments.

4. Big Mac Mania

Picture 8.pngBig Macs are sold in over 100 countries today, with the United States leading the pack at 550 million consumed annually. Japan is next, followed by Europe (specifically the combination of the U.K., Germany and France) and then Canada. So how much of a commission does MJ Delligatti get from every Big Mac sold? Nada. The Corporate office did issue him a very nice plaque, however.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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