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A Brief History of Gummy Bears

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Ever since I can remember, I have been a confirmed gummy bear addict. I love gummy bears, particularly Haribo's Gold Bears and Happy Cola (it does make me happy), but I'll even deal in Trolli in a pinch. Of course, that the little, fruit-flavored gelatin bears are addictive shouldn't be surprising—after all, in 1997, tobacco exec James Morgan, head of Philip Morris Co., claimed that tobacco is no more addictive than gummy bears.

But what do we really know about these tasty denizens of a gummy candy world? Here's a quick and dirty on gummy bears:

In the Beginning"¦

In 1920, a poor confectionery factory worker in Bonn, Germany, decided that it was high time he struck out on his own. Armed with nothing but a bag of sugar, a marble slab, a kettle, an oven and a rolling pin, Hans Riegel began whipping up hard candies in his kitchen, which his wife would then deliver from the basket of her bike. The new company was called Haribo—a smash up of Hans Riegel of Bonn.

hariboAfter two years of middling profits, the Riegels realized that they'd need a gimmick and fast to keep competitive. Noticing the popularity of the soft gelatin-based candies of their competitors and thinking, well, children like bears, the Riegels decided to make their next product a soft, fruit-flavored chew in the shape of a dancing bear (Tanzbär). The original bear was a bit taller and more svelte than the gummy bear (or, in German, gummibär) we all know and love, but it was an instant hit with children in Bonn.

By 1930, the two-man family operation had evolved into factory of 160. By the beginning of World War II, Haribo had more than 400 employees churning out 10 tons of candy each day. World War II was a disaster for the company—Hans Riegel, Sr. died, his two sons were prisoners of war, and Haribo was down to 30 employees—but the company limped on. When the two sons returned, they brought the company back from the edge and revived it such that by 1950, they employed more than 1,000 workers. From there, the world: Haribo consumed its confectionery competitors and built more factories in markets across Europe, changed its bear shape to the now classic, smushy Gold Bear shape, and entered the US in 1982.

The Secret Recipe

The exact recipe and method of production of the Haribo bears remains a closely guarded secret. And although there are many pretenders to the throne who've tried to usurp the gummy crown (Trolli, German inventors of the gummy worm, are a notable example), Haribo remains one of the largest manufacturers of gummy in the world, if not the biggest, producing more than 80 million bears a day for distribution the globe over.

The Bears Go Big Time

The bears had been popular in Germany and Europe for generations, but it wasn't until the 1980s that American markets caught on the gummy craze. Soon, everything from dinosaurs to Dungeons & Dragons figures was being cast in gummy, although the bears remained the heart of the industry.

gummi-cartoonIn 1985, even Disney stepped in to capitalize on the popularity of the little bears, with a cartoon featuring a family of bouncy anthropomorphized bears called The Adventures of the Gummi Bears.

The Gummi Bears, bouncing here, there, and everywhere, were a family of six bears, the sole survivors of the once great Gummi race decimated and forced into exile by humans jealous of their magical gummi powers. Living beneath a medieval human kingdom, the bears are discovered by a kind human boy who promises to keep their secret, but are constantly troubled by an evil Duke who knows of their existence and wants to steal their Gummiberry Juice, which was the secret to their bounce and was like PCP for humans. The show premiered on NBC in 1985, paving the way for the animation boom that was the Disney Afternoon, and lasted until 1991.

The Bears Go Even Bigger Time

This September, the world's largest gummy bear went on sale online at Weighing in at 5 pounds and standing 9-and-a-half inches tall, one single bear is the equivalent of 1,400 regular-sized bears. A diabetic nightmare, the bear offers five times your daily caloric intake in one go, with 12,600 calories. It comes in three flavors, blue raspberry, red cherry, and green apple, and is handcrafted in the USA. Should you be unable to consume the entire gummy animal in one sitting, it can last up to a year in plastic wrap in the fridge. For $30, that's almost worth it.

The Bears Go Boob Time

Ever squished a gummy bear between your fingers and though, "Hmm"¦ feels like boobies?" No? Well, me either, but evidently someone has—"gummy bear" breast implants have actually been on the market since 2005, FDA-approved since 2006. They're not actual gummy bears, but they are made of a silicone gel material that mimics the firm but soft texture of the gummy bears.

Bear as Meme

In 2007, a green, squishy bear that danced in its orange underwear and sneakers to over-synthed techno muzak took YouTube by storm. Despite its twee bizarreness, the bear's first song, "I Am Your Gummy Bear," actually cracked the singles charts of Australia, Germany, Sweden, and a few others before its cuteness finally wore itself out. Of course, that didn't stop the makers of the Gummy Bear from making more songs featuring the jiggly creature, hawking ringtones, and splashing his ditzy mug on t-shirts (available in adult and infant sizes).

Gummi Light image courtesy of

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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]