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3 Weird Disasters Involving Food

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The Food and Drug Administration has issued a number of dangerous food recalls in the last few years. But there was a time when food didn't just attack us after we ingested it. Some foods just cut out the middleman and created wide-scale disasters without contaminating a single colon.

1. The Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

A 50-foot high tank of sweet syrupy goodness stood over the North End of Boston when the massive steel behemoth burst open on an unusually warm January afternoon and violently drizzled over everything in its path, killing 21 people. The viscous liquid created quite a disturbing sound as it coated two city blocks. A Boston Herald reporter described how the sweet syrup tidal waves created a "muffled roar [that] burst suddenly upon the air." It also moved quite fast as it slithered through the town into a destructive fist that flipped houses and buildings, knocked over horses as if they were tasty slices of French toast and even smashed an elevated railroad structure "like an eggshell." If you're suddenly thinking about making an IHOP run, seek counseling immediately.

2. The London Beer Flood of 1814

In 1814, Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery in London constructed a brewing vat that was 22 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter, with an interior big enough to seat 200 for dinner — which is exactly how its completion was celebrated. (Why 200? Because a rival had built a vat that seated 100, of course.)

After the dinner, the vat was filled to capacity. Unfortunately, they overlooked a faulty supporting hoop. Yup, the vat ruptured, causing other vats to break, and the resulting commotion was heard up to 5 miles away.

A wall of 1.3 million gallons of dark beer washed down the street, caving in two buildings and killing nine people by means of "drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes, or drunkenness."

The story gets even more unbelievable, though. Rescue attempts were blocked and delayed by the thousands who flocked to the area to drink directly off the road. And when survivors were finally brought to the hospital, the other patients became convinced from the smell that the hospital was serving beer to every ward except theirs. A riot broke out, and even more people were left injured.

3. The Wales Tapioca Freighter Time Bomb of 1972

tapiocaTapioca might sound like an innocent treat that's the favorite of toothless infants and toothless elderly the world over, but the right conditions can turn it into a bulky ship destroyer. The crew of the Swiss freighter Cassarate were hauling 1,500 tons of the stuff when a fire started in some timber in the upper holds. The freighter docked in Cardiff, Wales, so firefighters could extinguish the blaze the crew had kept under control for more than 25 days. But the fire wasn't the ship's biggest problem. The water from the firefighter's hoses seeped into the cargo hold, and the fire started cooking the tapioca. The food swelled to massive size and raised concerns that 500 truckloads of the dessert treat could buckle the ship's supports and sink it. Fortunately, crews were able to stamp out the fire and cool down the pudding before it could do any real damage to the ship's supports, the town's docks or the crew's blood sugar levels.

[The story of the beer flood was written by Ian Lendler and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.]

Danny Gallagher is a freelance writer, reporter, humorist and ghostbuster living in Texas. He can be found on the web at dannygallagher.net, on MySpace and on Twitter.

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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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