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The Quick 10: Attack of the Killer Fruit

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Today is the anniversary that Zachary Taylor died, just a year into his term and a few days after the Fourth of July festivities that may have been his undoing. The culprit? A bowl of cherries. Here is his story, and the story of nine other fruit assassinators (or would-be assassinators, in a couple of cases).

taylor1. Zachary Taylor enjoyed the Fourth of July festivities just like most people did on July 4, 1850, and then walked home to the White House to enjoy a late-night snack of iced milk and a bowl of cherries. He died five days later of "gastroenteritis," at least that was the official word. People later suspected that he had been poisoned. This was disproved in 1991, when his remains were dug up and tested for arsenic. Some was found, but not enough to have killed him. This didn't stop the assassination theories, though "“ there's an interesting article here about one of the theories. For his part, Zachary Taylor seemed to suspect that he had been poisoned as well "“ he fell quite depressed during the five days he suffered between the cherries and his death, and said, "I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged."

2. Ivanka Perko survived Nazi and Communist regimes, escaping Slovenia with just the clothes on her back and some black pepper in her pocket to ward off guard dogs. But in the end, a banana brought the 73-year-old grandma to her demise. She was attempting to open a banana and dropped it; the pointy end scraped down her leg and scratched it. To most of us, this would just be a silly little scrape, but Perko had been ill for several months and she wasn't healing properly from even the smallest of injuries. She ended up dying of infection and complications from the banana injuries. She maintained a sense of humor about it, though, and said on her deathbed, "I can't believe after all this time it was a bloody banana that killed me." Her humor lives on in her family, who noted that it was sort of a fitting end for such a unique and fruitful life. Ha.

3. On June 19, 1882, The New York Times reported that Hugh Griffin, aged 20 months, died due to "excessive indulgence in strawberries." The article reports that "Although the Griffin child was healthy up to the time it ate the strawberries, his surroundings were conducive to disease. The air in the house was foul and the place was filthy. His parents were poor people living in a tenement in one of the filthiest localities in the City. It is in the neighborhood between Washington and West streets, into which the sunshine seldom penetrated."

peach4. OK, so it wasn't the peaches' fault that a South African man died, but they were the source of the trouble. In 2005, Bhekizizwe Walter Gule got in a fight with his unnamed neighbor over the peach tree that sat in Gule's yard. Because the tree dropped leaves in the neighbor's yard, the neighbor felt he had the right to eat a peach or two when he felt like it. Gule disagreed and threatened to kill the neighbor if he helped himself to a snack again. He wasn't kidding "“ the next time it happened, Gule approached his neighbor as he was outside talking to a friend and shot him five times.

5. This one is similar, but much sadder: a six-year-old boy was killed by his own grandfather just last month after a fight over watermelon. ""I'm not sure that it's easy to get your mind around that concept, but we believe it was some sort of issue with the child either dropping or prematurely cutting this watermelon that initially precipitated the argument," said the Commerce, Ga., police chief. His grandmother was also shot, but survived.

6. Do you guys remember the cantaloupe scare of 2001? Yeah, me neither. But surely after two Californians died of salmonella after eating tainted cantaloupe, the nation was put on high alert (you know how those things go). And it wasn't the first time "“ in 1991, a similar case occurred in the U.S. and Canada, although no fatalities were reported.

grapefruit7. Luckily for this woman from Olympia, Washington, this one was a near miss. She almost died from the infamous grapefruit diet earlier this year. After just three days of the diet, which calls for replacing some meals with nothing but grapefruit, she became seriously ill. Doctors later determined that an excessive amount of grapefruit can block the production of an enzyme that breaks down drugs. If the drugs are unable to break down, blood clots can form and cause all sorts of problems. In this case, it caused the woman's leg to become gangrenous and she nearly lost it. One more reason to avoid diets, right?

8. So the Saguaro cactus fruit isn't as commonly known as apples and oranges, but it does exist. And it does kill. In 1982, David Grundman was using a 27-foot cactus for target practice "“ which is apparently fairly common, because Arizona had to declare it a felony "“ when the cactus decided to take revenge on its way out of the world. As the Saguaro began to fall, Grundman started to yell out "Timber!" but the second syllable was cut short when he was crushed under the plant and its spikes. The incident was nominated for a Darwin Award many years after the fact.

9. You've probably heard the vague statistic that coconuts kill more people than sharks do "“ some figures even say that there are as up to 10 times the number of coconut-related deaths than shark attacks. The deaths, of course, come when a ripe coconut falls out of a tree and crushes the skull of an unsuspecting passerby below. But the fact is, we don't actually know that for sure. According to the Straight Dope, people have definitely suffered fractured skulls and have been knocked unconscious, but they were unable to find a single instance of an actual fatality related to a falling coconut. However, this didn't stop Shel Silverstein from writing "Killed by a Coconut," which is kind of hilarious.

cranberries10. The date: November 9, 1959, 15 days before Thanksgiving. The perpetrator: the cranberry, longtime Thanksgiving sidekick. The crime: conspiring to kill. Just two weeks before Turkey Day, the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare announced that a batch of cranberries from Oregon was contaminated with a weed killer known to cause cancer in rats. Even though it was just one shipment, and even though you would have to consume 15,000 pounds of cranberries to match the ratio of this weed killer that caused the cancer in the rats, the Secretary caused a cranberry panic across the U.S. People preparing their Thanksgiving dinners asked how they could know if the cranberries they were buying were safe, and the official response was something to the effect of, "You don't. You'd better not buy any, just to be cautious." But no one died, and both John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon made it a point to eat cranberries during a campaign stop in Wisconsin, just to prove to the public that cranberries were still safe to eat.

What fruit would be the death of you? Honestly, I'm not a terribly picky eater, but any fruit ensconced in Jell-O grosses me out beyond belief.

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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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.