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The Surprisingly Interesting History of Margarine

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Corbis

How well do you know your margarine history? Let’s take a look at the origins of the butter substitute, and the dairy lobby's attempts to defeat it.

Where did the name “margarine” originate?

In a chemist’s lab. French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered a new fatty acid in 1813 that he dubbed acide margarique. Chevreul’s discovery contained lustrous, pearly deposits, so he named it after the Greek word margarites, for “pearly.”

Did Chevreul take his margaric acid and head straight for the toaster?

Not quite. If you enjoy margarine, tip your cap to Emperor Napoleon III.

Napoleon III saw that both his poorer subjects and his navy would benefit from having easy access to a cheap butter substitute, so he offered a prize for anyone who could create an adequate replacement.

Enter French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès. In 1869, Mège-Mouriès perfected and patented a process for churning beef tallow with milk to create an acceptable butter substitute, thereby winning the Emperor’s prize.

So Mège-Mouriès became the first margarine tycoon?

Far from it. Despite Napoleon III’s high hopes for Mège-Mouriès’ product, which the scientist had dubbed “oleomargarine,” the market didn’t really take off. In 1871, Mège-Mouriès showed his process to a Dutch company that improved on his methods and helped build an international market for margarine. The Dutch entrepreneurs realized that if margarine were going to become a substitute for butter, it needed to look like butter, so they began dyeing margarine, which is naturally white, a buttery yellow.

Mège-Mouriès didn’t get a princely sum for his invention; he actually died a pauper in 1880. The Dutch company that improved upon his recipe did pretty well for itself, though. The company, Jurgens, eventually became a world-renowned maker of margarines and soaps and later became a part of Unilever.

How did the dairy world react to margarine’s sudden popularity?

They were predictably more than a little irked. Butter was big business, and the notion that a cheaper substitute, even one made in part with milk, might storm the market terrified dairy farmers. They didn’t take the threat lying down, though, and convinced legislators to tax margarine at a rate of two cents per pound—no small sum in the late 19th century. Dairy farmers also successfully lobbied for restrictions that banned the use of yellow dyes to make margarine look more appetizing. By 1900, artificially colored butter was contraband in 30 U.S. states. Several states took even more extreme measures to turn consumers away from margarine—they required the product to be dyed an unappealing pink color.

Did other countries enact similar restrictions?

If you think taxes and dyes are tough, then the Canadian government’s anti-margarine campaign seems downright draconian. From 1886 until 1948, Canadian law banned any and all margarine. The only exception to this rule came between 1917 and 1923, when World War I and its aftermath left butter in short supply and the government temporarily gave margarine the thumbs up.

Margarine didn’t necessarily have an easier time after the ban was relaxed, either. Quebec’s strong dairy lobby ensured that rules against dyeing remained in place in the province until 2008.

Was there any way around these color restrictions?

Sure. It sounds almost laughable now, but if you wanted to eat margarine on your toast without having to stare at its natural white color, there was a solution. As the coloring restrictions became widespread around the turn of the 20th century, margarine producers accepted that they couldn’t dye their wares yellow. There was no reason why they couldn’t simultaneously sell consumers margarine and yellow dye, though. When you bought a block or tube of margarine, you also got a packet of food coloring that could be kneaded into the margarine by hand.

What helped margarine stay competitive with butter in the face of these restrictions?

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More restrictions, of course. Paradoxically, the pure foods movement of the 1920s helped undermine natural butter and elevate the status of margarine. In 1923 Congress passed a law that made it illegal to add any other ingredients to butter, even additives that would help make the butter more spreadable.

As any toast aficionado knows, margarine is a heck of a lot easier to spread than butter. Suddenly, butter makers couldn’t tweak their products to make it easier to slather on breakfast, but margarine manufacturers could. Margarine’s popularity skyrocketed.

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Margarine also got a bit bump from World War II. When wartime butter scarcity forced consumers to switch to margarine, lots of margarine holdouts realized that the improved product wasn’t so bad after all. In 1950, the U.S. government repealed the heavy margarine tax, and the market continued to grow as individual states reversed their bans on colored margarine. The last state to repeal the ban on dyes? You guessed it: Wisconsin. America’s Dairyland didn’t allow dyed margarine until 1967.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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