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Happy Pancake Day!

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In the Christian tradition, today the the final day before the beginning of Lent, also known as Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), Faschingsdienstag, Malasada Day, Sprengidagur, Martes de Carnaval, and Pancake Day! All these terms refer to the last hurrah of overdoing it before the Lenten fasting begins. Celebrating by eating pancakes uses up your supply of oil, eggs, milk, and sugar, which you may be giving up until Easter. So let's celebrate the pancake!

Pancake Race

Many communities have a pancake festival or some kind of gathering to eat pancakes together before Lent. One of the oldest is in the village of Olney, England where an annual Pancake Race dates back five centuries! On Shrove Tuesday, women compete against each other in a 415-yard race in which they must carry a pancake in a skillet. The legend is that when the church bells rang for Shrove Tuesday service in the year 1445, a certain housewife was not finished grilling the cakes. Not wishing to ruin her pancakes, she ran to the church with pan in hand. The traditional race will be carried on today in Liberal, Kansas as well. The Kansas event is now a three-day festival.

The Pancake Project

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The Pancake Project is a blog chronicling the art of the pancake. The author has been experimenting with creative cakes for over ten years, and welcomes submissions of your best flapjacks. See pancakes that look like other food, scenes, and even 3D artworks made of pancakes! Other pancake blogs include Illinois Pancakes with reviews of pancake restaurants in Illinois and Daddy Cakes, which is a blog attached to a baking products store, but they feature pancake news and stories from all over.

History of the Pancake

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Pancakeology has a wealth on information about pancakes. The history of flatbread goes back at least to ancient Rome, where Alita Dolcia (another sweet) was consumed. The use of pancakes before Lent dates back to medieval times in Europe. Native Americans already had soft flatbread made from cornmeal before the Europeans arrived. Why are pancakes so popular? Because they are made of simple ingredients people have on hand, can be made quickly with available appliances, and lend themselves to additions of your favorite flavorings. With some variations, fried flatbreads are found in dining places all over the world. Image by Flickr use Gilmoth.

World Records

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The largest pancake breakfast ever was held on February 9th, 2008 when the Fargo (North Dakota) Kiwanis Club served up 34,818 pancakes! The Guinness organization awarded the Kiwanis the record of "most pancakes made in 8 hours".  The "most pancakes made by an individual" title belongs to Steve Hamilton of Chris Cakes, who poured and flipped 956 pancakes on May 6th, 2009. In February of 2009, chefs Sean McGinlay and Natalie King built a stack of pancakes 29.5 inches tall at a hotel in Glasgow, Scotland to claim the "tallest stack" record.

Pancakes in Literature

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In the rarely-seen children's book Little Black Sambo, the story ends with a large dinner of pancakes. The racially-charge illustrations and the name itself overshadowed the basic story of a boy and four tigers. In 1957, Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett started a restaurant and used a combination of their names to name it Sambo's. The chain used pictures of the story's characters to decorate its dining rooms and advertising, including the pancakes. The connection with the book led to charges of racism, and the restaurant chain went bankrupt in 1981. Other children's book featuring pancakes are The Great Pancake Escape and If You Give a Pig a Pancake.

Pancake Events

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The International House of Pancakes (iHop) celebrates Pancake Day when Lent is well underway. The explanation is that the odd date extends their fundraising drive for the Children's Miracle Network. So whether you can take advantage of the free pancakes depends on whether you are giving up those treats for Lent. However, you can still donate to the fundraiser!

The Pancake Bunny

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The most famous pancake on the internet is that which lies on the head of Oolong,  the Pancake Bunny. Hironori Akutagawa took photographs of his very patient pet rabbit with various items balanced on his head. The picture of Ooolong balancing a pancake became ubiquitous in a picture used for forums and websites with the caption "I have no idea what you're talking about"¦ so here's a bunny with a pancake on its head."

Pancakes!

James Provan made a name for himself with the joyful music video Pancakes! in 2006. Happy Pancake Day!

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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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