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Get your Country out of my Happy Meal!: Liberty cabbage, Freedom fries and other Product Renamings

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Political battles can dictate what we call our food and friends, and even what games we play. During WWI, sauerkraut was popularly rebranded Liberty Cabbage. When anti-French sentiments began to build a few years ago, "French Fries" were rechristened "Freedom Fries." (Nevermind that Thomas Jefferson may have been the one to first rave about the delicious side item in the U.S.). And while most patriotic terms fade, places like Berlin, Iowa, and Germantown, Nebraska, have ended up permanently renamed. Here are a few other examples of reactionary vocab rebranding efforts from all over the globe.

1. Food

Picture 15.pngTHE KIWI: The iconic fruit of New Zealand was originally known as a Chinese Gooseberry. When the country exported the fruits to the US starting in the 1950s, marketers referred to them as a melonettes to avoid evoking the Cold War conflict between China and the US. The name was later changed again to Kiwifruit came to avoid tariffs on melons and berries and to honor the country's national bird, the Kiwi.

KIWI LOAVES: In 1998, New Zealand bakers were irritated by threats of French nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean. So they took matters into their own hands by renaming French bread as Kiwi bread. The action received little attention compared to the Freedom fry movement here in the states.

FRENCH VANILLA: Of course, now that the Star Spangled Ice Cream company has renamed its ice cream from "I Hate the French Vanilla" to "Air Force "˜Plane' Vanilla," the recent anti-French sentiments may have left US kitchens, for now.

ROSES OF MUHAMMAD: After the 2006 controversy over Danish cartoons depicting Muslims, the Iranian Confectioner's Union changed the names of Danish pastries to "Roses of the Prophet Muhammad."

2. Drinks

BOURBON: To wash down the sweet taste of independence, Americans began drinking Bourbon—a Whisky first brewed in the US in 1789. Rev. Elijah Craig rebuked the UK origins of the drink, naming it after Bourbon County, Kentucky.

a.mecca.jpgMECCA COLA: In 2002, Muslims asserted their beverage independence too. A Muslim-run company introduced Mecca Cola as an alternative to Coca Cola. The manufacturers imitated the Coca Cola flavor and packaged it with a red label and white script. Arab boycotts of American brands boosted the cola's sales.

3. Games

CARDS TAKE A HIT: In 1917, the city of Syracuse made a statement against WWI by banning a card game. They prohibited Pinochle because of game's German origins (it came from the game "Binokel").

21: American Black Jack has roots in Europe, but went through a few name changes before settling on that name. First, it was a popular French casino game in the 1700s called "Vingt-et-Un" ("Twenty One"). The British liked to play it too, but with the French and Indian War going on, they decided to rename it "Pontoon."

Animals

a.alsatian.jpg4. GERMAN DOGS: Your furry four-footer is man's best friend. But that love might be conditional if the breed's name evokes a particular enemy country. Instead of German Shepherds and Dachsunds, owners in countries around the world doted on their Alsatians and Liberty Pups.

5. Illness

EVEN OUR SICKNESS GETS A NAME CHANGE? During WWI, a Massachusetts doctor decided to combat the German invaders, specifically German Measles. The new "Liberty Measles" had all the same symptoms, plus a little extra patriotism. Newspapers used the new term for decades.

6. Education

HOW KINDERGARTEN ALMOST GOT CHANGED: New Jersey teacher Katherine T. Cassell published an article "Wartime German at Junior High" in the 1945 German Quarterly. She wrote about her students' experience in the classroom and the anti-German frenzy taking place in the public. Her students learned military-related German words that year, and started dropping "ersatz" into conversations.

Students discussed public calls for banning German words, boycotting German music and language studies, and even forbidding "Frankfurters."

In response to the proposal to change the school term "Kindergarten" to something less German, one eighth grader said "that it would be just as sensible to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, just because it was designed by a German." Another student added that they would also have to get rid of Diesel engines and German contributions to science and medicine.

The term "Kindergarten" survived, but are there any other renamings you remember?
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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]

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