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Where Candy Canes Come From

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One year when I was very young, my mother took me to see Santa Claus at Miller's department store in Knoxville. They had a candy cane factory set up in the middle of the sales floor! While we kids waited in line to see Santa, we could watch through the glass windows and see the candy being cooked, pulled, twisted, and wrapped. After we spoke to Santa, each child would get a fresh cane, still slightly warm. That's a memory I will always treasure. But where did the tradition of Christmas candy canes come from?

No one knows exactly how long candy has been a part of Christmas celebrations. Sugar has been used since antiquity as a preservative and a source of quick energy, which made it very useful in winter weather when fresh food was not available. Image by Flickr user Great Beyond.
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During the Christmas of 1670, Cologne Cathedral in Germany was staging a living nativity. The choir director gave out white sugar sticks to children as a reward for good behavior. This is the earliest documented use of candy canes for Christmas. Some sources say the choir director had the canes bent to resemble a shepherd's crook before giving them out. The bent shape made the candy just right for hanging on a tree. The Christmas tree shown is from the early 1800s, decorated with candy and cookies.

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German immigrant August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio was the first recorded American to decorate a Christmas tree in 1847. It was adorned with paper chains and cookies as well as candy canes, and people came from miles around to see it. He became famous for that pioneering tree.
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Peppermint became a trendy flavor around the turn of the 20th century for flavoring candy, gum, and toothpaste. In 1901 the King Leo candy company created the first peppermint stick candy.

200bobspureandsweetBob McCormack founded McCormack's Famous Candy Company of Albany, Georgia in 1919. Later the company became Bob's Candies, now a division of Farley & Sathers Candy Company. McCormack is credited as the first candymaker to add red stripes to candy canes. The company was also the first to use cellophane to wrap candy, making it last much longer on store shelves. McCormack's brother-in-law, Father Gregory Keller invented the Keller Machine in 1950. This machine automated the process of making uniform-sized candy sticks with much less breakage than the made-by-hand method. In 1958, the final stage of automation was added to candy cane manufacture when employees developed a machine that put the crook into the end of the cane, a job that was done by hand until then. Take a look at how candy canes are manufactured today.

This is a great setup if you need to make thousands of candy canes in batches weighing hundreds of pounds, but you can make your own candy canes. After you are finished with the candy making, you might want to try Emiril Lagasse's recipe.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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