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What a Bad Idea Tastes Like

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As each country has its own laws, ways of driving, celebrities, and accents, each also has its own chip flavors. In the US, we've got our Sour Cream & Onion, our BBQ, our Salt & Vinegar. And here in the UK, one chip-maker "“ or rather, crisp-maker "“ is hoping that Crispy Duck & Hoisin could be topping the list of Britons' favorite flavors some time soon. Or maybe it'll be Chilli & Chocolate. Or possibly even Cajun Squirrel.

Walkers Crisps, a subsidiary of Frito-Lay and therefore Pepsico (you may notice the similarity in logos between Walkers and Lays), already markets such time-honored flavors as Smoky Bacon, Steak & Onion, Roast Chicken, Prawn Cocktail, Pickled Onion, Marmite, Tomato Ketchup, and Worcester Sauce. But in recent years, and despite the global recession, which normally drives people to low-cost, high-fat food, the cheap crisps market is on the wane. It seems that the market for "healthier" crisps (read: fancier and more expensive) has been growing at a rate of 14 percent annually, muscling out the greasier crisps of their share of the snack pie.

walker-cajun.jpgIn an effort to inject a bit of life into the cheap crisp market, Walkers appealed to the public: Give us your whacky, out-there crisp ideas, they said, and we'll make them happen. Ideas were submitted by people from across Britain, judged by Walkers's panel of experts, and ultimately whittled down to these six finalists: Onion Bhaji, Cajun Squirrel, Builder's Breakfast, Chilli & Chocolate, Fish & Chips, and Crispy Duck & Hoisin. It makes you wonder what the judges rejected.


Of course, I had to try them. All of them. And yes, it was embarrassing to be an American purchasing six packets of crisps in one go from the grocery store, but in the name of journalism, I pressed on.

What follows is an account of what happened next.

Builder's Breakfast: The bag of Builder's Breakfast features a picture of an English breakfast arranged in a little builder's face: A smiley sausage for a mouth, fried eggs for eyes, a tomato nose, bacon ears, and a little swirl of ketchup for hair. That could give some indication of what the crisps tasted like, but then again, in the great tradition of chip flavors bearing no resemblance to what they're supposed to be, it might not. You could just discern a bit of egginess and a bit of tomato tang, but the rest was a bit of a blur. My husband liked them; I wasn't entirely sure what I was eating. But it was a good start to the Tour de Crisp, we both agreed "“ it could only go down hill from here.

Cajun Squirrel: This was my husband's reaction to the Cajun Squirrel: "Pleasant aroma," he says, opening the bag emblazoned with a fluffy grey squirrel peering wistfully from behind a picket fence. Chomp, chomp. His face slowly rearranges itself into a mask of horror. "What is that? I don't like it!"

To clarify, the crisp tastes a bit like a BBQ chip, with an extra bit of something "“ could that be the squirrel? Sure, Walkers promised that no squirrels were harmed in the making of this crisp, but something died in that bag.

onion-y.jpgOnion Bhaji: Oniony. Indiany. Not bad. They seem like something I could definitely get into after a night of drinking, and with gusto, sort of a poor man's late night curry. What I do object to, however, is the illustration on the packaging: A figure in what is intended to be Indian dress with an onion for a head is standing next to a plate of what look like deep-fried Tribbles. These Tribbles look vaguely menacing and the posture of the onion man is difficult to understand "“ is he afraid of the Tribbles? Is he embracing the Tribbles? Is he proud of them? It's a mystery.


Crispy Duck & Hoisin: I had to Google "hoisin" and discovered that it is a sort of sweet soy sauce typically spiced with red pepper. This could be good, however, this particular offering tastes neither of duck nor what I would assume hoisin sauce to taste like, but instead tastes of a perfumed armpit.

Fish & Chips: Fish and chips is a dish absolutely pioneered by the British. A slab of battered cod or some sort of other suitable white fish, a side of fries, and maybe a little mushy peas to accompany the whole mess, and you've got yourself a very fine meal, or at the least, an excellent coating to the stomach in preparation for a night of drinking.

But what you do not have is a crisp flavor. These crisps smell like getting punched in the face with a fish; they taste like grease, or, as my husband claimed, "It takes like when they make the fries in the fish oil."

Chilli & Chocolate: This, our final flavor, tastes like a dusting of Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix on a bad idea. It's not exactly spicy, not exactly chocolatey. The less said about this the better.

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On the whole, Builder's Breakfast and Onion Bhaji emerged victorious from our very scientific taste test, although I would hasten to mention that all of the flavors uniformly tasted of the inside of a gas station convenience store. Eating them made me feel dirty. But don't just take my word for it: Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker also tried the new flavors and came up with far more clever and colorful ways of describing their badness.

The contest lasts until May 1, at which point Walkers will announce which of these will become part of the regular line up. Anyone out there who's tried these crisps want to weigh in? Any other weird chip flavors that you've tasted?

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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