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12 Pickle Facts Everyone Should Immediately Commit to Memory

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By Shannon Cothran

People have been eating pickles ever since the Mesopotamians started making them way back in 2400 B.C.E. Here are some even more important things you should know about them.

1. In the Pacific Islands, natives pickle their foods in holes in the ground lined with banana leaves, and use them as food reserves in case of storms. The pickles are so valuable that they've become part of the courting process, helping a man prove he'll be able to provide for a woman. In Fiji, guys can't get a girl without first showing her parents his pickle pits.

2. Cleopatra claimed pickles made her beautiful. (We guess it had more to do with her genes.)

3. The majority of pickle factories in America ferment their pickles in outdoor vats without lids (leaving them subject to insects and bird droppings)! But there's a reason. According to food scientists, the sun's direct rays prevent yeast and molds from growing in the brine.

4. In the Delta region of Mississippi, Kool-Aid pickles have become ridiculously popular with kids. The recipe's simple: take some dill pickles, cut them in half, and then soak them in super strong Kool-Aid for more than a week. According to the New York Times, the sweet vinegar snacks are known to sell out at fairs and delicatessens, and generally go for $.50 to a $1.

5. Not everyone loves a sweet pickle. In America, dill pickles are twice as popular as the sweet variety.

shelves6. The Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American eats 8.5 lbs of pickles a year. [Image courtesy of Dangerous Intersection.]

7. When the Philadelphia Eagles thrashed the Dallas Cowboys in sweltering heat in September 2000, many of the players attributed their win to one thing: guzzling down immense quantities of ice-cold pickle juice.

8. If it weren't for pickles, Christopher Columbus might never have "discovered" America. In his famous 1492 voyage, Columbus rationed pickles to his sailors to keep them from getting scurvy. He even grew cucumbers during a pitstop in Haiti to restock for the rest of the voyage.

9. Speaking of people who get credit for discovering America, when he wasn't drawing maps and trying to steal Columbus' thunder, Amerigo Vespucci was a well-known pickle-merchant.

10. Napoleon was also a big fan of pickle power. In fact, he put up the equivalent of $250,000 as a prize to whoever could figure out the best way to pickle and preserve foods for his troops.

11. During the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, H. J. Heinz used pick-shaped pins to lure customers to his out of the way booth. By the end of the fair, he'd given out lots of free food, and over 1,000,000 pickle pins.

12. Berrien Springs, Michigan, has dubbed itself the Christmas Pickle Capital of the World. In early December, they host a parade, led by the Grand Dillmeister, who tosses out fresh pickles to parade watchers.

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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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