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Are Tomatoes Fruits or Vegetables?

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Here's a scene you'll probably see this summer: you'll be at a barbecue or picnic, enjoying nice, fresh in-season tomatoes, and you might make an offhand comment about tomatoes being your favorite vegetable. Almost immediately, some know-it-all will pipe up with, "Tomatoes are fruits, not vegetables!"

No one would blame you if you told your pedantic guest, "Wow! Thanks for correcting me! It's clear now why everyone enjoys your company so much!" That response is a bit aggressive, though, so try this one instead: "Actually, according to the Supreme Court, tomatoes are vegetables. I'm just trying to keep this picnic nice and legal."

Yes, the Supreme Court has weighed in on the "Are tomatoes fruits or vegetables?" debate, and the justices came to a firm conclusion: tomatoes are veggies. Let's take a look at how this momentous decision came to pass.

The Trouble with Tariffs

Like a lot of American' history, the great tomato debate was the product of a tariff.

In March 1883, Congress passed a new tariff act that put a 10-percent import duty on any whole vegetables brought into the country. The new tariff didn't really cause any hullabaloo until the produce-importing Nix family tried to bring a load of tomatoes from the West Indies into New York. The collector of the port of New York, Edward L. Hedden, charged the Nixes the 10-percent duty on their tasty wares despite their angry protests that tomatoes were fruits, not vegetables. Hedden refused to classify the offending tomatoes as fruit, so the Nixes sued him to recover their tariff duties.

Ripening Justice

Botanically, the Nix family had an airtight case. Tomatoes fit the bill of being the fleshy ripened ovaries of a plant, which makes them fruits. Legally, things weren't quite so open-and-shut, though. The Nixes' efforts to be reimbursed for the tariff duties kicked off a six-year legal battle that ended with arguments before the Supreme Court in 1893. The Nix family's lawyer read the Justices the definitions for "fruit," "vegetable," and "tomato" from various dictionaries and even called in expert testimony from fellow produce merchants on whether the grocers thought tomatoes were fruits or vegetables.

The defense used many of the same tactics in its efforts to convince the justices that tomatoes were indeed vegetables. The defense counsel went to the dictionary for definitions for "squash," "pepper," "eggplant," and "cucumber." The defense's argument was pretty simple: sure, tomatoes were biologically a fruit, but for the purposes of trade and commerce—that is, the things covered by the Tariff Act of 1883—tomatoes were really vegetables.

The Court Rules

When faced with this information, the Supreme Court unanimously found that tomatoes were vegetables. Justice Horace Gray admitted in his decision that while tomatoes were technically the fruit of a vine, they were always served "at dinner in, with, or after the soup fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert." In other words, unless people wanted to start capping a meal with tomato ice cream, tomatoes were for all intents and purposes vegetables and could be taxed as such. The Nix family wasn't getting its import duties back.

Sound strange? Here's something that's even weirder: the Supreme Court actually had a precedent for a very similar issue. In his decision Justice Gray referenced a previous Supreme Court case, Robertson v. Salomon, in which Justice Joseph P. Bradley had written the opinion that beans were vegetables rather than seeds. In that 1892 decision, Bradley rebuffed the notion that beans were seeds:

"We do not see why they should be classified as seeds, any more than walnuts should be so classified. Both are seeds, in the language of botany or natural history, but not in commerce nor in common parlance. On the other hand in speaking generally of provisions, beans may well be included under the term 'vegetables.' As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put."

Tomatoes-As-Veggies Lives On

At first glance, the Nix v. Hedden decision sounds like a Gilded Age curiosity, but the whole "tomatoes are a vegetable" notion still pops up from time to time. In 1981 the Reagan administration was searching for ways to cut school lunch costs while still providing students with the full nutritious lunch consisting of milk, meat, bread, and two servings of vegetables. USDA bureaucrats hit on the idea of counting ketchup as one of the servings of vegetables under the logic that ketchup was cheap and kid-friendly.

As you might imagine, parents and the media weren't so keen on the idea of counting a smear of ketchup on a burger as eating your vegetables. The proposition enraged parents and nutritionists alike, and the administration quickly scrapped the plan.


In 2005, Nix v. Hedden came back into the news in New Jersey. The Garden State is nationally known for its delicious tomatoes, and lobbyists have used the Supreme Court's vegetable ruling in their efforts to get the tomato named the state vegetable. Arkansas had earlier decided to play both sides of the debate in 1987 when it passed a single bill declaring the South Arkansas Pink Vine Ripe Tomato both the official state fruit and the official state vegetable. Tennessee and Ohio, on the other hand, have pleased botanists by making the tomato their official state fruits.

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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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