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Dietribes: We All Scream for Ice Cream!

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Although we just missed National Ice Cream Month, that's no reason to skip out on this icy treat now, especially in such hot weather. Here are some facts and figures regarding one of the best bribing tools ever created, Ice Cream.

"¢ Ice Cream, in some form, has been enjoyed as far back as second century B.C., and became an American favorite in the 1700s. In fact, here is a picture of Thomas Jefferson's own recipe. If anyone can decipher the writing, please share it below. (For more Ice Cream history, check out Miss Cellania's vintage overview).

"¢ What exactly is Ice Cream? And how does it differ from frozen yogurt, gelato and custard? By law, ice cream must contain 10% milkfat, the same as custard, which must also contain a certain percentage of egg yolk solids. Gelato contains more milk than cream and plenty of eggs and flavoring. Sherberts and sorbets contain little to no dairy products but far more sugar. Frozen yogurt, of course, contains cultured milk.

"¢ The ice cream cone was invented sometime in the early 20th century, although its exact origins are disputed. Still, the "cornucopia" made from a rolled waffle was made popular because of its availability at the St. Louis World's Fair, and has been dripping with melted goodness ever since.

"¢ Of course, there are many famous ice cream companies, though here are some facts you may not know. Before opening their store, Ben & Jerry took a $5 correspondence course from Penn State on how to make ice cream. (Take the Ben & Jerry's quiz here) Also, did you know Haagen Daz is not foreign? The company started in the Bronx.

"¢ For more interesting ice cream makers, check out some trendy LA ice cream shops, or read about Heartschallenger, an ice cream truck that visits concert venues

"¢ It should be of little surprise that Vanilla tops the lists as favorite flavor, but did you know Chocolate Peanut Butter tops the list of fattiest? Yum.

"¢ If you're a huge fan of Ice Cream and have money to burn, considering purchasing a $1000 sundae from Serendipity 3 in New York, topped with a 23-carat edible gold leaf. Do you think gold gives you indigestion? I know spending that much on a sundae would.

"¢ What would summer be without the ice cream truck? (An issue debated in one of my favorite shows of yore, the Adventures of Pete & Pete, when Mr. Tastee flees town). Despite Mayor Bloomberg's attempts to ban ice cream truck music in 2005 (music from ice cream trucks ranked 13th out of the 24 most bothersome noises in the city, more tolerable than car alarms and horns, but worse than bars and barking dogs), a compromise was reached that allowed for music, but only when the truck is in motion.

Two questions for you, my Flossy friends ... what's your favorite ice cream flavor (let's take an informal tally), and do you know of any fairly easy ice cream recipes?

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
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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.