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Dietribes: Preparing the Perfect Picnic

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We're taking a break from our usual format this week to focus on a more general dining experience, and one we felt apropos to the season - the picnic. James Beard says it best, "Wherever it is done, picnicking can be one of the supreme pleasures of outdoor life. At its most elegant, it calls for the accompaniment of the best linens and crystal and china; at its simplest it needs only a bottle of wine and items purchased from the local delicatessen as one passes through town."

The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture tells us, "there is no reliable etymology for the word picnic, with the original use of the word lagging about three hundred years behind the first descriptions of al-fresco (open air) dining. From about 1340 until the very early 1800s, there are three contextual descriptions of picnics, whether or not the word is actually used: a pleasure party at which a meal was eaten outdoors; a hunt assembly; and an indoor social gathering or dinner party. "

"¢ And as far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned a picnic was, "originally; a fashionable social event at which each guest contributed a share of the food. Now: an informal meal eaten out of doors, esp. as part of an excursion to the countryside, coast, etc."

"¢ A guide to early picnics from Sports Illustrated of all places, says, "Picnics may have thrived first in the ages of chivalry and romance, but they took on an entirely different coloration when they crossed the Atlantic. In pioneer America, picnics built log cabins, raised barns, threshed wheat; there were husking bees, soap boilings, quilting bees, tree-felling drives. All picnics. As the need for community effort passed, the gregarious pleasure of eating out of doors has lingered on as a social custom"

"¢ There are a number of famous picnics that take place all over the world. To start, Bastille Day 2000 in France featured roughly 405 miles of checkered tablecloth spread over tables up to six-tenths of a mile long, and had an estimated 3 million participates, along with countless others who celebrated locally. On our own shores, an annual Congressional picnic on the White House lawn just took place recently in June.

"¢ The Picnic Society of London (1802"“1803) was a short-lived elite social club "“ Entertainment at the first meeting included a French proverb and an act from the Bedlamites (translated for the occasion). Dinner was then provided from a tavern. The Gentlemen's Magazine explains, "It took its name from the circumstance that everyone drew lots as to what should be his or her share of the entertainment. The club consisted exclusively of leaders of fashion including the Prince of Wales, Lady Buckinghamshire, the Duke of Queensberryn, Lady Salisbury and many others."

"¢ Perhaps no proper picnic can be complete without the Picnic Boat, currently owned by both Martha Stewart and ... Geraldo. But be wary of picnics by the water ... you may run into errant wildlife.

"¢ From Claudia Roden, author of Everything Tastes Better Outdoors, "The pleasures of outdoor food are those that nature has to offer, as ephemeral as they are intense. A bird will sing his song and fly away, leaves will flutter and jostle the sunlight for a brief second—sky, flowers, and scents have each their small parts to play in the perfect happiness of those enchanted moments. They serve, as Jean Jacques Rousseau said, to 'liberate the soul.'"

"¢ Ah, the picnic. What are some of your favorite things to pack in your basket?

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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]