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How the French Revolution Gave Birth to the Restaurant Business

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by Tony Perrottet

The next time you're at your favorite café, raise a glass to the aristocrats who lost their heads so that you could enjoy your foie gras.

France gave birth to restaurants, but it was no civilized affair. In fact, today's restaurant business is actually a byproduct of the class warfare that arose during the French Revolution.

Back in the Middle Ages, fine dining was a privilege enjoyed exclusively by feudal lords who had their own grand kitchens and personal chefs. The only commercial eateries for the masses were seedy roadside inns, where strangers crowded around mediocre buffets of tepid roasts and over-sauced legumes. But sometime in the 1760s, the merchant class of Paris developed a taste for healthy light broths known as restoratives, or restaurants. By the 1780s, this new Parisian "health food" craze led to a handful of reputable dining halls, where customers could sit at individual tables and choose from a wide range of dishes.

Ironically, the popularity of these restaurants grew at a time when the bulk of the French population couldn't afford bread.

Decades of harsh winters and oppressive taxation had taken their toll on kitchen tables. Worse still, the greater part of the nation's tax dollars had gone to pay for the excesses of the aristocracy and monarchy. By 1789, the starving French masses could no longer be controlled. Looting and riots erupted throughout Paris, ushering in the French Revolution.

Aristocrats fled to the countryside, leaving behind their highly skilled chefs and the fine wines from their cellars. Suddenly, unemployed cooks and abandoned bottles found their way to the city's eateries, and within a year, nearly 50 elegant restaurants had popped up in Paris. These epicurean temples catered to the new class of French deputies and businessmen and were featured in travelogues throughout Europe. As word of their deliciousness spread, Parisian restaurants became tourist attractions on par with Notre Dame.

Admittedly, fine dining hit a rocky period during the Reign of Terror of 1793-94, when anyone suspected of ties to the aristocracy risked facing the guillotine. One unfortunate proprietor, Jean-François Véry, hung a sign over his door that read, "We welcome people of the best sort." The elitist sentiment quickly landed him in prison. Still, Véry was the exception. Most Parisian restaurants kept up a lively trade, their tables replete with fine hams and pâtés. And most patrons felt safe enough within their walls to joke about Robespierre, the grandmaster of the Reign of Terror, and how he couldn't afford to send his spies there.

The Restaurant King

napoleonsThe restaurant business truly came into its own during the early 1800s, after the upstart general Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the country and granted "freedom of pleasure" to all citizens. Napoleon reasoned that people who were focused on Champagne and sauce reductions probably wouldn't conspire against him. A few years later, when Napoleon's military conquests brought fantastic wealth to Paris, restaurants began to compete for customers with marble décor and salacious entertainment. One establishment featured bare-breasted women dressed as Amazon warriors, who were lowered from the ceiling in golden chariots.

In the end, many more Frenchmen dined out than could actually afford the experience. Oddly, it became almost commonplace for customers to steal knives and spoons. One waiter at the upscale restaurant Naudet's spotted a patron pocketing the flatware and politely handed him a bill that included "Cutlery, 54 francs." The customer paid up cheerfully, tut-tutting, "How dear things are getting these days"¦" But this only goes to show how far restaurants had come. In less than a century, fine dining went from being the exclusive privilege of people born with silver spoons in their mouths to a must-have for people who stole them.

Editor's Note: This story appeared in mental_floss magazine and was adapted from Tony Perrottet's Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (HarperCollins).

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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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