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Foooood iiiiin Spaaaaace: The Curious Case of the Contraband Corned Beef

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In 1965, Command Pilot Gus Grissom and Pilot John Young successfully piloted the Gemini 3 spacecraft on a four-hour and forty-three-minute mission into Earth’s orbit, completed a handful of tests of the craft’s capabilities and returned safely to solid ground. Afterwards, their actions during the mission were the subject of a Congressional House Subcommittee hearing and both Congress and the NASA brass gave Young strongly worded reprimands.

What went wrong? It all starts with snacks.

Tubes and Cubes

Food is essential to voyages of exploration, especially in outer space. Space travel has a significant effect on the human body – bone density decreases, muscles waste, red blood cells are lost, etc. – so good nutrition is incredibly important to keep astronauts healthy and functioning. Today we think of “space food” as Tang, food sticks, dehydrated ice cream and other fun, appealing items, but in the early days of the manned space flight, the culture was driven by the military and the food was approached in a certain utilitarian fashion.

In the development of space foods – some of the earliest of which were adapted from items designed for earthbound use in high-altitude, high-speed scenarios by fighter jet pilots – minimal weight and bulk and long-term preservation in extreme conditions were prioritized above flavor, texture and presentation. While astronauts’ enjoyment of the food was supposed to be factored into the creation and selection of food items, their feedback was often brushed aside.

The USA and USSR both started off using puréed foods in aluminum tubes for space flights. The food could be eaten through a polystyrene extension tube connected to the astronaut or cosmonauts’ helmets. Both countries used a wide variety of foods in these containers, including John Glenn's first orbital meal: applesauce. Astronauts had their tubes complemented by bite-sized compressed food cubes, created to address scientists’ concerns about free-floating crumbs that couldn’t easily be cleaned up and might damage equipment, clog vents or be inhaled by the astronauts. Flavors included bacon, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and fruitcake, but it appears most astronauts didn’t notice a difference in flavor from one cube to the next.

Soviet cosmonauts, meanwhile, rounded out their meals with fresh items like bread, salami, jelly, roast veal, apples, oranges and caviar. Scientists there had the same concerns about crumbs, but instead of putting effort and money into mission-appropriate food, they concentrated on methods and equipment for cleaning the crumbs up. Red Menace 1, America 0.

Stowaway Sandwich

When Gemini 3 was ready to launch, both the space race and the space food situation were pretty unappetizing. If JFK wanted a man on the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had plenty of work to do, and each flight and each mission had to achieve certain goals to move the whole operation toward that end. One of the jobs the Gemini 3 crew was tasked with was testing some food tubes and some new specially packaged fresh items. Scientists wanted to know for future flights how the packaging fared and how well the crew could work and eat at the same time. Grissom and Young were given several food tubes and sealed packs containing fresh hot dogs, brownies, chicken legs and applesauce.

Knowing that Grissom often complained of the “dehydrated delicacies concocted by NASA nutritionists,” Walter Schirra, an astronaut who had acquired a reputation as a joker, decided that the Gemini crew would have a little something extra to munch on while in orbit. The day of the launch, he went to Wolfie's Restaurant, a deli not far from the space center, and bought a corned beef on rye sandwich. He brought the sandwich back to the base and slipped it Young, who proceeded to hide it in his pocket smuggle it on board the craft.

About an hour and 45 minutes into the flight, Young pulled the sandwich from his pocket and handed it to his surprised Commander, provoking the following exchange.

Grissom: What is it?

Young: Corn beef sandwich.

Grissom: Where did that come from?

Young: I brought it with me. Let's see how it tastes. Smells, doesn’t it?

Grissom: Yes, it's breaking up. I’m going to stick it in my pocket.

Young: Is it?

Young: It was a thought, anyway.

Grissom: Yep.

Young: Not a very good one.

Grissom: Pretty good, though, if it would just hold together.

Young: Want some chicken leg?

Grissom: No, you can handle that.

A Crumby Reaction

In all, the astronauts spent about 30 seconds talking about the sandwich and only ten seconds of that time tasting it before it began to fall apart in the absence of gravity and Grissom tucked it away. The half-minute incident created a good deal of fallout, though.

Congress, responsible for NASA's budget grant, wasn’t too amused with the idea that highly trained and supposedly highly disciplined astronauts felt that a practical joke was appropriate and/or funny on an expensive and high-profile space mission.

Schirra, Grissom and especially Young received a full dressing-down from Congress and the press, despite their senior technical managers coming to their defense. The Associate Administrator of the Office of Manned Spaceflight was quick to tell Congress that, “there was no detriment to the experimental program that was carried on, nor was there any detriment to the actual carrying out of the mission because of the ingestion of the sandwich.”

In the end, though, NASA’s then-Administrator James Webb sided with Congress instead of his pilots and Young was officially reprimanded. The incident didn’t do much to damage the astronauts’ careers – Young served in the Apollo Program, landed on the moon during Apollo 16 and later piloted the Shuttle; Schirra flew several more missions; Grissom flew on the first Apollo mission was scheduled to fly on the first Apollo mission, but died during a pre-launch test and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor – but it did prompt a flurry of regulations governing what could and could not be consumed in space.

After the corned beef boldly went where no sandwich had gone before, NASA only allowed officially sanctioned food on spacecraft and the days of astronauts packing their own lunches were over.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

501069-OpeningCeremony3.jpg

Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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