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Let them Eat Cupcake!

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This Thursday, Covent Garden "“ typically home to flocks of tourists, living statues, and souvenir tchotchke shops "“ had a new visitor, one who didn't stick around all that long after being hacked to sweet pieces by two knife-wielding public relations girls. The World's Largest Cupcake, as the impressive confection was billed, measured around 4 feet by 6 and a half feet and weighed in at more than 330 pounds, was covered in chewy white and pink fondant, studded with Smarties, topped with a giant, bright red cherry-like object and looked every bit as unreal as you would imagine. One woman, sidling up next to the massive queue that had formed to get a taste of the massive confection, asked someone in line if indeed the cake were real. Assured that it was, she said, laughing, "I thought, why are all those people taking pictures of a plastic cake?"

The cake was real "“ made of approximately 200 eggs, 110 lbs of sugar, 35 blocks of butter, all baked in small batches, then stuck together with frosting, masonry-style, and carved into a cupcake shape. There was no actual cupcake paper, but the traditional accordion-style folds found around the base of cupcakes were cleverly mimicked in more fondant. The whole thing took Michelle Wibowo, the culinary Olympian behind the cake, and her team around 50 hours to finish. And it tasted pretty darn good "“ surprisingly light, the buttercream "mortar" not too sweet, though the outside icing wasn't terribly pleasant "“ especially for a massive cupcake that had been sitting in the sun encased in gummy fondant for a few hours.

But was it truly the World's Largest Cupcake?

It's quite possible that the more than 1200 people who turned out for a bit of the cupcake did witness baking history, but the truth is there are more than a few pretenders to the throne "“ and the Covent Garden cake may be among them. 


This summer alone has seen at least two other attempts at the record:

  • In early July, a Crystal Lake, Ill. Bakery baked a 68-pound cupcake, swaddled in a massive baking paper cup under 25 pounds of frosting. 
  • And just about a month before that, the Merengue Bakery of Monrovia, Calif. baked an 8000-pound, 7-foot tall, entirely edible bright pink cupcake-shaped creation for an MTV reality show. It was clearly the largest contender so far, easily twice as large as the Covent Garden Cake, but it also eschewed the paper cup and went with fondant. 

And there have been more:

According to JCPR, the public relations company that handled the Covent Garden cupcake event, there is no entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for world's largest cupcake; the Guinness Book of World Records site does not indicate that there is a record for such a cupcake, however, the website maintains only a small fraction of the records held worldwide. JCPR also noted that though they'd "done [their] research," looking into whether this could indeed be called the world's largest cupcake, they would not be seeking official adjudication by the Guinness Book of World Records.

A Question of Cupcakes

But I guess all these contenders for the world's largest cupcake title actually beg the question: What is a cupcake? What are the defining characteristics of a cupcake? Is the paper baking case? Is it the distinctive shape? Must it be baked all at once, in a single unit, or can it be stuck together, like the Covent Garden cake or Duff's cake, which was disqualified for just that issue?

Also in the case of the Covent Garden World's Largest Cupcake, what is to differentiate it from simply large cakes? The cupcake's "world's largest" size is derived from its relative size to an actual cupcake, not its absolute size, and there much larger cakes are on the books, including a 105-foot tall cake baked in Pakistan in 1997.

These are serious questions and I'm looking for serious answers: So, dear readers, what say you? Do any of these large cupcakes count? What makes a cupcake and why is it different than a cake, once it begins to reach these proportions?

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]