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Dietribes: The Sandwich

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Since we've covered the origins of various sandwiches in other Dietribes, this week we're looking at some straight up sandwich facts and figures, some of which may astound and amaze! Or just ... induce hunger.

"¢ In 2008, in a bid to promote healthy eating, Iranians attempted to make the world's largest ostrich sandwich. It took two days to prepare the massive meat sub, which ran along a measuring tape the length of the table. Unfortunately, some people rushed forward to eat it before it could be properly measured for the Guinness Book of World Records.

"¢ "First came the atom bomb, then stealth bomber and then the airborne laser. Now comes the US military's latest fearsome weapon: the indestructible sandwich."

"¢ You might not think the sandwich to have much longevity, but consider the story of the former Boy Scout who saved a half eaten sandwich from Richard Nixon for over 48 years.

"¢ Sandwiches are good, but are they fainting good?

"¢ What's the "greatest thing since sliced bread?" How much do we know about the Inventor of the Bread Slicing machine anyway? As it happens: after many years of labor, Iowa native Otto Frederick Rohwedder (born July 6, 1880, in Des Moines) filed for a patent on his new slicing-and-wrapping device, and sold his first machine to the Chillicothe Baking Company, in Chillicothe, Mo., in 1928. On July 7 of that year, the company sold its first loaf of sliced bread. Customers, of course, loved the product (and have ever since!)

"¢ Not sure what treats to make for Sunday's Super Bowl? How about a sandwich in the shape of a football?

"¢ So to answer the question of the greatest thing since sliced bread: Perhaps the sliced meat face? My favorite comment underneath it is "what's it made of? 80% meat ... 20% face." Although it should be careful - New York State Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, in a New York (NY) Daily News interview on January 31, 1985, stated that a grand jury could indict just about anyone or anything, including "indict a ham sandwich."

"¢ Think you know sandwiches back to front? Try this vintage Mental Floss quiz.

"¢ The number of sandwiches a person can dream up are fairly endless. According to the National Restaurant Association, "the make-up of a sandwich consisting of just five items or toppings (such as bread, meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato) can be ordered in 120 ways. A sandwich comprised of 10 items or toppings could provide 3,628,800 combinations. Furthermore, an individual presented with 15 items for a sub or sandwich has 1.3 trillion combinations--making it physically impossible to label for all of these combinations."

Still, what are some of your favorite and most inventive sandwiches, Flossers?

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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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