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Dietribes: I Believe I Can Fry

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• In addition to the waffle which bears their name, the Belgians claim to have invented "French" fries, although accounts are unconfirmed. Fried potatoes were around as early as the 1700s, where Thomas Jefferson sampled them in Paris and brought the recipe home. At a White House dinner in 1802, the menu included "potatoes served in the French manner."

• The "French" in French fry did not catch on until the first World War, where American soldiers feasted on these friend potatoes while stationed in France. From then on there was simply no stopping them - more than 4.5 billion pounds of fries were sold in the United States last year.

• But the Belgians are not to be deterred - "so seriously do they take their fried potatoes that four years ago a vocational center started to train would-be frites sellers. Classes are always oversubscribed. The school, in Leuven about 30 km (20 miles) from Brussels, spends a year teaching aspiring vendors the tricks of the trade, from the sugar content of various potatoes to techniques of double-frying. They have to write a thesis to graduate, says the school's communications chief, Lieze Struyf."

• What happens to the potato skins once the fries are sliced, shaved and shaped? The shavings were once sold as livestock feed, but by 1953 there was a tastier answer. Mixed with spices and friend, these little delicacies became Tater Tots.

• Sometimes fast food just isn't fast enough, which must have been the rationale behind these French fry vending machines.

• Just when you thought there was no way to make us any fatter ... ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the French fry covered hot dog. Admittedly that may actually be delicious, but as for these chocolate-flavored, cinnamon-flavored, and blue-colored "Funky Fries" ... the public and I remain skeptical.
 
• Hmm, remember that little situation with French fries being renamed Freedom Fries? For those unaware, they are back to being French again.

• Sometimes it's ok to play with your food ... like if you want to paint a portrait with ketchup and fries, or take part in New Jersey's annual fry sculpting contest.
 
• I love French fries, you love French fries, First Lady Michelle Obama loves French fries. “They are my favorite food in the whole wide world,” she said. “I could live on French fries." Even though they maaaaay cause cancer ...

• But I can't end on such a down note, I love fries! I make my own, usually out of sweet potatoes. And don't even get me started on the Tater Tot, the most perfect food to eat when you're starved late at night. How do you Flossers prepare your fried spuds? And are all fast food fries the same, or is there a clear winner for taste and crispiness?

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
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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