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10 Interesting Edibles From the Fancy Food Show

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This January brought the 35th annual Winter Fancy Food Show to San Francisco. Held each year at the Moscone Center in SF, the enormous event highlights just about anything you could put in your mouth. It's like Comic-Con for foodies, the kind of place where the makers of the "world's best salt water taffy" rub shoulders with guys who try to reinvent the snack chip in their garage. Here are a few things that stuck out at this year's show.

1. SlowCow Smooth Drink

The fizzy, bubblegum-flavored drink features a comatose looking cow on its label and seems to be marketing itself as an antidote to energy drinks like Red Bull. The makers claim that it's like an acupuncture session in each can. I don't know about you, but I'm not crazy about picturing myriad sharp needles when I'm putting something into my mouth.

2. Bacon, Bacon and More Bacon

Who doesn't like bacon? Featured at the show this year were smoky treats like Sir Francis Bacon's Peanut Brittle, bacon flavored pretzels, and, get this, bacon envelopes.

fancy-food-envelope

That's right, J&D's Foods, maker of Bacon Salt and Baconnaise, brings you bacon flavored envelopes. Called "mmmvelopes," the things actually do taste like bacon when you lick them, and feature a fanciful pink and white exterior reminiscent of a nice marbling of fat.

3. Fartless Chili

The Fartless Factory in Idaho claims that their chili lacks most of the gaseous output of regular chili. Do they have any empirical evidence? No, but the owner casually refers to himself as "The Old Fart," and whether his chili makin's deliver on his gasless promise or not, you've got to like a business owner with a sense of humor.

4. Watermelon Wheat Beer

watermelon-beer
Brewed by 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco and called "Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer," this brew is just flat-out bizarre: fruity and yeasty and hoppy and watermelony. It may be a good gateway beer for light beer drinkers, or fruity drink lovers, but a bit of a departure for those who would rather sip on IPAs and stouts.

5. Quirky Combinations

earth-vine

Earth & Vine Provisions, a small jam and sauce maker from Loomis, CA, figures that if you like bananas and oranges and jalapenos and mustard and garlic, you'll like them all at the same time. And, for the most part, they're right. Their apricot-pineapple-tangerine jam is delicious, and so is their blueberry-lemon-ginger. Their chipotle-honey-lime mustard is great on pretzels, and their banana-rum-pineapple jam is killer on ice cream.  However, I'm not sold on the spicy apple garlic jam.

6. Funni Bonz Barbeque Sauce

Classic Marketing. With over 80,000 products at the Fancy Food Show, you'll try anything to get noticed. Funni Bonz goes for the old "crazy spelling trick," which probably isn't even necessary since their ridiculously good sauces speak for themselves.

7. Hippie Chips

hippie
Hippie Chips, however, goes for the other classic: "sex sells." While they claim that the "hippie" label refers to their all-natural baked potato and hemp seed chips, it equally applies to the impossibly hourglassed ladies on their bags of chips. These girls make Barbie look as curvy as a fencepost.

8. Cheese Honey

The Savannah Bee Co. markets its honey not by variety—wildflower, orange blossom, etc.—but by what they think goes well with it. Hence, Cheese Honey, Grill Honey, and Tea Honey. Sure, they sell regular honey too, but the pairing idea is rather genius when you think about it. The one thing to look out for is a consumer expecting a big chunk of Roquefort floating in his honey pot.

9. The Jelly Belly Motorcycle

fancy-food-cycle

OK, this one isn't edible, but I had to include it. Jelly Belly is one of the most popular candy brands in the country. I'm sure they're comfortable putting their logo on just about anything. But I fail to see what audience they're going after with the Jelly Belly low-rider motorcycle. I just can't picture myself putting on my leathers and pulling out with the local Harley gang on my candy orange hog.

10. "The Food and Drink of Scotland"

Not exactly famous for their culinary prowess, the Scottish are trying to remake their image somewhat. A Scottish trade group had a large, sleek booth at the FFS and was telling anyone who would listen about their edible bounty. While no one is claiming that the Scottish are nipping at the gastronomic heels of the French—Gordon Ramsey be damned—a case can be made for the really fantastic ingredients that come out of Scotland: angus beef, salmon, shellfish, and, lest we forget, Scotch whiskey. Now pardon me while I go deep-fry a Snickers bar and watch Trainspotting.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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