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A Brief History of "American Cheese," from Colonial Cheddar to Kraft Singles

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While they had plenty of other culinary talents, the Native Americans were not a cheese-making people. It was the pilgrims who brought cheese and cows with them on the Mayflower and got the whole thing started this side of the pond.

Most early American cheeses were made at home, to be eaten at home, or sold in local markets. And while a variety of European styles persisted in non-commercial cheesemaking, American industry soon honed in on a single type: cheddar. It was uniquely sturdy and adaptable, and it proved manageable in colonial conditions. It also tasted great despite the seasonal extremes in temperature and humidity that other European cheeses couldn't endure.


So Americans got serious about cheddar; by 1790 they were exporting wheels back to England, the original motherland of the breed. The trade grew, and revolutionary patriots became proud of their "American cheese." British connoisseurs looked down on it, though, judging "Yankee cheese" inferior to traditional cheddars. The poor reputation made American cheese cheap, and what the aristocrats snubbed the British commoners quickly bought up.

The Craft of Kraft

Cheese_KraftSingle1s.jpgCheesemaking was transformed forever when Jesse Williams created the first American cheese factory in 1851, in New York. It started as a father-son venture -- conceived, in part, to cover for his son's poor cheesemaking skills. By buying up milk from surrounding herds and pooling it to make cheese at one location, Williams made commercial cheesemaking more viable and American cheese more reliably decent. From New York outwards, cheese factories spread like smallpox. Generic, factory cheddar became so common that Americans simply called it "store cheese," or "yellow cheese."

Then came James L. Kraft, who in 1903 moved from Canada to Chicago with $65, bought a horse and wagon, and started wholeselling cheese. To reduce waste, Kraft tried packaging cheese in jars, and then began experimenting with cheese canning -- an idea the Swiss had been tinkering with already. Then he tried something completely different. By shredding refuse cheddar, re-pasteurizing it, and mixing in some sodium phosphate, Kraft produced the strange wonder we now know as American process cheese (patented in 1916). It was an immediate commercial success, and a boon to American soldiers in the World Wars. By 1930 over 40% of cheese consumed in the U.S. was Kraft's -- and that was in spite of its relatively high price. Thanks to clever advertising, Kraft was able to charge more in exchange for a promise of safety and consistency, even though the product was derived from inferior cheese.

Some Fantastic Plastic

Meanwhile, "natural" cheesemakers lobbied to have Kraft's product formally distinguished from real cheese; the government acquiesced and established guidelines for labeling cheese-like products. Of the "pasteurized process" family: "American cheese" is a mild, meltable, and stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents to make, in the language of the law, "a homogeneous plastic mass." "Cheese foods" and "cheese product" are similar, but each have less "natural" cheese content than American cheese -- and, therefore, longer shelf lives.

Over a hundred and fifty years, what was known as "American cheese" moved from farmhouse to factory to laboratory, from wheels to waxed blocks to single-serving packets. In the last few decades we've started importing more cheeses of more varieties; and a new wave of "artisanal" cheesemakers promise to revamp the image of American dairy. Still, it's hard to believe that the generic title, "American cheese," will ever be wrenched from the most generic of all cheeses, the topping on Big Macs and grilled cheese sandwiches. What other product could epitomize with such grace this essential tendency in culinary history and the American identity?

Cheese expert David Clark is guest blogging with us all week! Be sure to check out his previous posts: 'Big Political Cheeses and the Riots They Caused' and 'The Maggot Cheese of the Mediterranean.'

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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