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Dietribes: Garlic

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"¢Â "What garlic is to food, insanity is to art," so said Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Egyptians ate bread and garlic as a major part of their diets, and King Tut even had some in his tomb (probably not to ward off vampires). It may even be the origin of the word "Chicago" (from a stinky wild garlic/wild leek, chicagoua). While you may not be a physiggoomai yet (an Ancient Greek word that means excited by eating garlic), but you may be well on your way after discovering its many benefits.

"¢Â Most people might think of garlic has being "aromatic," to put it kindly, but it can actually be helpful in attacking organisms in the gut that produce methane. That's right, scientists in Wales tackling the impact flatulent cows and sheep have on global warming may have an answer - putting garlic in their food. Mootral, a garlic supplement, was even shortlisted by the Financial Times in 2009 for innovative solutions to climate change.

"¢Â Of course, garlic is not only beneficial to animals - it has been known to aid in the prevention of certain cancers, help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, combat a cold, although it does not (sadly) ward off mosquitoes.

"¢Â As to whether garlic wards off Vampires or not, we cannot know. However, those less glamourous bloodsuckers (leeches) have been found to be attracted to garlic.

"¢Â From the quasi-scientific to the downright wacky, a vampire community in South Florida (of course; and obviously they don't mind sun) does eat garlic.

"¢Â Unable to get to the Gilroy Garlic Festival? Don't sit around watching paint dry when you could be watching garlic grow!

"¢Â Some restaurants specialize in garlic, such as California's The Stinking Rose, or the Stockholm joint that serves what is (apparently) surprisingly delicious garlic ice cream.

"¢Â Not everyone loves garlic, of course - there's an active campaign to ban garlic from restaurants in Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, Italian media tycoon and Prime Minister, said that he was compiling a food guide recommending only restaurants that banned garlic. Carlo Rossella, a prominent television executive, announced a campaign to persuade Italian restaurants not to use "stinking garlic" in their dishes.

"¢Â I take garlic vitamins every day! It's pretty much a wonder-supplment, in my esteem. I've never been able to cook the cloves properly, although I do use garlic powder (along with onion powder) on everything I roast in the oven, including salmon. Delicious! What are some of your favorite (or least-favorite) ways to consume this miracle herb, Flossers? Any bad garlic-breath stories to share?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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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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