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Dietribes: Taco Time!

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• The word "taco" describes the traditional Mexican dish that wraps a maize tortilla around a filling (whose varieties number into the infinite), though the etymology of the word itself and how it came to describe the dish remains a riddle inside an enigma, wrapped in a taco shell.

• What began as a humble idea to create a pre-formed taco shell in 1951 turned into a worldwide franchise by Taco Bell founder Glen Bell (Yes, the bell in …). Today, people are actually having Taco Bell weddings.

• In 2010 when Taco Bell expanded to India, beef tacos were replaced with chicken or vegetarian options. Potato and paneer became common filings (I wish we had these in the United States!)

• Alternate fillings are not uncommon - in the 1950s the Baja region created fish tacos (my very favorite!). As I consistently learn while doing Dietribes, creativity is never lacking when it comes to food creation - spaghetti tacos are now apparently all the rage thanks to what started as a joke on the Nickelodeon show "iCarly."

• And where there is a popular food, there closely follows a ridiculously expensive version of it. The Brentwood Restaurant offers its own taco creations such as Short Rib Tacos ($28.50) and Maple Leaf Duck Tacos ($20.50). An alternatively cheap option? How about the winner of the 2009 Roadkill Cook-Off – armadillo tacos. 

• If you really love tacos (and I mean really. love. tacos.) you should consider investing in some taco art. The faux gravitas of these pictures is absolutely hilarious.

• Gidget, the Taco Bell Chihuahua passed away in 2009, but you can keep the memory of a taco-hawking dog alive by dressing up your own pooch as, indeed, a small doggie-taco (works on babies, too).

• It's like salt and pepper, peanut butter and jelly, Rogers and Astaire, yes, you guessed the perfect pairing - tacos and strip clubs. Of course? File this under "Only in Texas" (and light language warning).

• As a pescetarian, fish tacos are my jam. What about you, Flossers? Any creative recipes or favorite places to find them? And while you're at it, drop me a line about what you'd like to see in some upcoming Dietribes on my Twitter!

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
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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
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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