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Dietribes: The Cranberries

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"¢ From what I can gather, "The cranberry, along with the blueberry and Concord grape, is one of North America's three native fruits that are commercially grown. Cranberries were first used by Native Americans, who discovered the wild berry's versatility as a food, fabric dye and healing agent." Now, of course, cranberries have become a staple of traditional Thanksgiving dinners. Though it is debatable whether cranberries were present at the "first Thanksgiving," if they were it's likely they were not served in a sugar-sweetened sauce to which we have so wonderfully grown accustomed.

"¢ According to NPR, "natural bogs evolved in Massachusetts from glacial deposits, which, over time, filled up with water and decaying matter. The resulting layers of sand and organic material comprise the ideal soil for cranberries. Last month in Plymouth County, Mass., the red-dotted landscape was evidence of thousands of years of geological evolution." Although perhaps not for long.

"¢ Early cranberry innovator John Webb (a.k.a. Peg Legged John) would pour the cranberries down the stairs rather than carry them (on account of his havin' a peg leg an' all). The good cranberries would bounce down the stairs while the bad berries that were soft wouldn't - voila! The "bouncing principle" is still used to this day to separate the good cranberries from the bad (a process currently untested on humans).

"¢ Cranberries, despite their perfect shape and vibrant color, cannot be easily enjoyed like blueberries and grapes. Raw cranberries are terribly sour and bitter, and are nearly always paired with sugar or other sweeteners - in some cases, raisins.

"¢ Still, don't let that extra step of preparation thwart your Cran-sumption. Rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients, research indicates they may reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, urinary tract infections, gum disease and ulcers. They're also high in vitamins A and C and in potassium.

"¢ Craisins (featured above) are not a rip off of the California Raisins because, obviously, they can't sing. But some Cranberries can.

"¢ A far cry from Thanksgivings of yore, it seems the cost of this year's traditional feast, surprise surprise, is on the rise.

"¢ Anxiously awaiting Thursday's feast? Need to see your cranberries right now? Take a gander at the live bog cam from Ocean Spray. I'm not sure if there's ever any action ... although since this is harvest season, there might be.

"¢ If I cannot feature an eating contest, then I most assuredly must present a list of related festivals (all of which have sadly passed us by this year). At the Warren Cranberry Festival a contestant may become Cranberry Royalty after being judged "100%" on an interview with judges in regards to personality, charm, grooming, poise, posture, past achievements and speaking ability ...and a 5 minute cranberry food demonstration. Of course, there are also festivals in Bandon, Nantucket, Chatsworth and other places for you to enjoy. Has anyone been before?

Feel free to discuss making your upcoming Cranberry-related yummies or any turkey-day plans below. Happy Thanksgiving!

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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]