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More Reviews of New Food

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Way back in April of 2007 I pointed you to McSweeney's Reviews of New Food. These reviews veer from hyperliterary nostalgia-laced foodpoems (The Laughing Cow Light Cheese Wedges: "If P.E. was the Crimean War of my middle-school life, then cheese was my Florence Nightingale.") to terse microstories that can only hint at the writer's painful inner life (Doritos X-13D: "The best thing about Doritos X-13D is the way your vegetarian girlfriend tries one before she looks at the package and sees that these chips contain beef tallow."). In all cases, the reviews are best when they're about everything but the food itself.

In the years since I first mentioned McSweeney's Reviews of New Food, many newer, stranger foods have been produced and subsequently reviewed, thus necessitating a recapitulation of my admonition: you must read these important reviews of new food. If you don't read these reviews, how are you going to know which new foods will make you happy or sad? And how are you going to find out about the suffering and tragedies inherent in being a food reviewer? Prithy go forth and read some food reviews. Here are a few favorites:

Mache (Lamb's Lettuce)
Submitted by Marco Kaye

For far too long, arugula held a bitter stranglehold over our salad bars. Then frisée entered and quickly exited our lives as the latest trend in roughage. Now there's a newcomer, with a name that rhymes with squash. It's mache, also called lamb's lettuce. Mache attempted a debut five years ago, on NPR, but the green hasn't caught on until now. The reasons for this are twofold. First, many of us were blindsided by the watercress takeover of '05 to '06 (which was met with a resounding "I guess just dump them into the microgreens" attitude). Second, mache-cultivation techniques have improved a lot.

As each successive movement in art is a reaction against the previous mode, mache represents a collective shift away from the tart greens that populate those mesclun mixes. It tastes sweet and just slightly nutty. The tiny green leaves are attached seven or eight on a stem. It looks like several children's mittens tied together. And it's just as delicate and airy. It plates beautifully as well, the way a discarded child's mitten creates a forlorn oasis of humanity in a city street. ...

My Son James's Favorite Snacks
From the Local Tienda, as Described
by My Son James

Submitted by Lisa Domby

"This place doesn't have a name. It's in the old Johnny's Sporting Goods, but they don't sell crickets here anymore."

Takis Fuego (rolled corn chips, fire flavor): "These things taste way crunchier and way spicier and way awesomer than Doritos. The guacamole ones smell good, but they don't taste good."

Paleton Patolin paleta de malvavisco (chocolate-covered marshmallow with gummy eyes and mouth): "This thing looks like a weird clown, but it tastes pretty good." ...

Babidinos Paletadinos sabor tamarindo enchilada (tamarind lollipop): "This is my favorite thing to get. This thing is really chewy and spicy. You can't eat the whole thing, because it's too spicy, but you can save it in the refrigerator for a really long time. If you don't put it in the refrigerator, ants will get on it."

Dwight Yoakam's Chicken Fries
Submitted by Jonathan Holley

A product of the Bakersfield Biscuits Brand, Dwight Yoakam's Chicken Lickin's Chicken Fries come approximately 12 to a box, which costs just a dollar. These are similar to the chicken fries available at Burger King, but of inferior quality. The bright red, orange, and yellow packaging of Dwight Yoakam's chicken purports that they are "inspected for wholesomeness" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The packaging is evasive regarding the results of said inspection. Were these fries deemed wholesome? It seems impossible.

In my 1997 analysis of the chickenesque, I famously hypothesized that Nabisco's Chicken in a Biskit crackers would forever maintain position as lowest rung on the chicken continuum. Today, Dwight Yoakam offers irrefutable counterevidence and collapses my former worldview.

See also: Panic's New Product Reviews and

Do you have a favorite new food? Or one that has left you forlorn and regretful? Share your own reviews of new food in the comments!

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]