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Dietribes: Lollipop Lollipop, oh lolli Lollipop

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"¢Â Edible candy on a stick has been around for centuries in many forms, though the "lolly pop" as we now know it was fashioned in the 1920s. Even as far back as the Middle Ages, royalty would sometimes eat boiled sugar with sticks.

"¢Â A question that has been around perhaps as long as the candy itself ... how many licks does it take to finish a lollipop off? Of course, this postulation was made popular in the 1970s with Tootsie's unforgettable campaign that continues to amuse and baffle kids (and adults) to this day. There are, however, some scientific studies that have sought to find the answer to this Great Mystery.

"¢Â Stick a sock in it! Or ... a lollipop? Some British pub owners are helping to control noise pollution after closing by handing out lollipops to costumers to consume on their way home.

"¢Â Lollipops are so popular they can even sell for $4.5 Million ... well, a painting of them can. Picasso also took a stab at immortalizing the lollipop with a (very strange) 1938 painting, while Salvador Dali did his part by designing the logo for Chupa Chupas, as he was a family friend of the founder, Enric Bernat.

"¢ Lollipops are a popular subject matter for singers and rapper alike - Lil Wayne, The Chordettes (yes this is the song you're thinking of that will get stuck in your head) and of course ... Shirley Temple all have their classic versions regarding the pop Lolly.

"¢ Love Lollipops? Become a Lollipop man or woman. Not as fanciful as it may, the terms actually refer to crossing guards in the UK, a position that has seen a rise in applications lately due to the recession.

"¢ More successful Lollipop lads may be those from the Wizard of Oz's Lollipop Guild. Guild actor Billy Bletcher voiced the Big Bad Wolf in Three Little Pigs and Spike the Bulldog in Tom & Jerry, while his Guild co-star Pinto Colvig was the voice of Goofy and Pluto.

"¢ Lollipops can also do good. One similarly-named device has been found to help the blind better acquaint themselves with their surroundings. Actual lollipops can also replace the oral fixation of smoking - Kojak sucked on lollipops because the actor who played him, Telly Savalas, was trying to quit cigarettes.

"¢ ... They can also do bad. On the flip side, there were once candy-flavored nicotine-packed lollipops that the FDA eventually put a stop to. Lollipops can also occasionally be responsible for nearly putting out your eye (if you're David Bowie, anyway).

"¢ Finally, to answer another Lollipop conundrum: The "mystery flavor" Dum-Dum Pop is truly random. The mystery pop is a mixture of two flavors (the end of one batch of candy meets the beginning of the next batch). Candy lines are continuous, so when they switch over from one flavor to another, the result is some pops contain both flavors.

"¢ What are some of your favor flavors, Flossers? What are your feelings about the Buttered Popcorn flavor that Dum-Dums got rid of in 2001? Possibly related, what's the worst flavor you've ever tasted?

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
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]