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Dietribes: Give Us Our Daily Bread

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"¢ Bread has been around probably as long as we have, going far back into the Neolithic age. It comes in many shapes, sizes, colors and with varying ingredients, but it persists in its many forms in a way that not even Atkins can wipe out. "Bread" is often synonymous with necessities in general.

"¢ Legend has it that in medieval Europe, "when a loaf was one day old it was fit for the nobility, when two days old for the gentry, at three days it was good enough for scholars and friars, and when it was four days old—granting that any of the loaf remained—the common citizen might taste it."

"¢ The color-coded bakery twist tie might help you know when it's your day to eat bread, according to medieval Europe ... or just help you know when it was actually baked.

"¢Â Like driving a new car off the lot, bread begins going stale as soon as it is made. Which is why you should consider canned bread as an alternative (seriously I've had it - it's really good!)

"¢ Bread has also been influential in history on a number of occasions. In one case, the Great Fire of London was started by a baker. It may also have been responsible for some of the behavior leading up to the Salem Witch Trials ... at least, the effects of a hallucinogenic fungus that attacks it might.

"¢ Occasionally, bread's history has bordered on the sordid. Nitrogen trichloride, a.k.a. Agene, was a bleaching agent used to make wheat flour white, but was discontinued in 1949 after it was shown to cause "running fits" in dogs.

"¢ Despite all this, bread has always been exceptional popular. In some cases shortages were met with riots.

"¢ But is is art? This artist explores creative uses of bread in a way you are undoubtedly not allowed to sink your teeth into.

"¢ Like the mystery of a ship in a bottle, how is the pocket in pita bread created? Steam! It's not hard to do ... as long as the bread doesn't think itself a bun. Then you are in trouble!

"¢ In the category of "what the heck?" here's this bread-related headline: "Bread allegedly sold as crack leads to arrest."

"¢ Finally, a historical note on the croissant, an oft-favored bread: "According to legend, a baker alerted the forces of Vienna to the approach of the Turks in the siege of 1683. The bakers commemorated the Viennese victory with a crescent-shaped roll, precursor to the croissant, as the symbol of the Turks was a crescent..."

Do any of you Flossers bake your own bread? The discussion could be endless about great bread and what to pair it with. Suffice to say I eat plenty of different kinds and indulge at least once a day! I can't imagine how, but doesn't anyone hate bread?

More food, fun and frivolity can be found on my Twitter.

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
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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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