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The Quick 10: 10 Things We Got from Texas

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1. Deep-Fried … Anything?
Salty, pretzel-like pockets filled with Guinness and deep-fried? I’d try it. The ravioli-shaped Fried Beer debuted last year at the Texas State Fair, alongside deep-fried frozen margarita, and the year before, deep-fried butter. Before that, the fair boasted deep-fried latte, cookie dough, Coca-Cola, Pop Tarts, lemonade and chocolate. No word yet on Deep-Fried Lipitor.

2. Dr Pepper
In the 1880s, Charles Alderton developed the 23-flavored soft drink in Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco. The origin of Dr Pepper’s name is hazy – some think the “pep” is for pepsin, and others believe it refers to the early marketing of the soda, which like most others was called a “brain tonic” or “energizing tonic.” What we do know for certain is that the period after “Dr” was dropped in the 1950s for stylistic reasons.

3. Mary Kay Cosmetics
In 1963, Mary Kay Ash launched her company, Mary Kay Inc., in Addison. Today the company operates in 35 countries and boasts $2.8 billion in annual earnings. GM estimates that they have produced about 100,000 of the signature pink Cadillacs for top-earning Directors or Nationals.

4. Networked ATMs
Though previous versions of self-service banking machines existed, most required single-use tokens or paper vouchers and were only designed to dispense a fixed amount of cash. The first incarnation of the modern, networked ATM came in 1969, from Dallas and a guy named Donald Wetzel. He headed up Docutel, which until then had produced automated baggage-handling machines. In 1971, the company had developed the “total teller” model, which could take deposits, transfer money from checking to savings, savings to checking, get cash advances to from credit card, and take payment. Their patent was secured in 1973 and in 1995, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History recognized Wetzel and Docutel as the inventors of the networked ATM.

5. The Rodeo
Pecos, TX, claims to be the Home of the World’s First Rodeo, held on July 4, 1883. The event is still held every year on Independence Day, but the first official rodeo competition was held in Cheyenne, WY, in 1872. (Sorry, Texas.)

6. Jalapeno Jelly
Some enterprising and adventurous soul in Lake Jackson developed a mixture of jalapeno and bell peppers, sugar, gelatin and vinegar. Rather surprisingly (to me, anyway), it was a hit, and the concoction was first marketed commercially in 1978. Jalapeno jelly is a bit of, um… an acquired taste, but fans spread it on everything from biscuits to burgers.

7. Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM)
Perhaps one of computer technology’s more important developments, dynamic RAM, was invented by Dr. Robert Dennard of Terrell, TX, in 1968. The Intel 1103, the first piece of hardware incorporating Dennard’s design, was released by IBM in 1970. By 1972 it was the best-selling semiconductor memory chip in the world, completely obliterating the previous magnetic core technology.

8. Liquid Paper
Bette Claire Nesmith, single mother of Monkee Michael Nesmith and native of Dallas, was a part-time artist and the executive secretary at Texas Bank and Trust. The early-model electric typewriter she used at the bank made correcting mistakes extremely difficult, but she drew on her experience painting windows to come up with an easier method. Said Nesmith, “[W]ith lettering, an artist never corrects by erasing, but always paints over the error. So I decided to use what artists use. I put some tempera water-based paint in a bottle and took my watercolor brush to the office. I used that to correct my mistakes.” In 1956, she had a perfected formula, which she marketed under the Liquid Paper brand. In 1979, Nesmith sold the company to Gillette for $47.5 million.

9. The Most Powerful Laser in the World
After establishing the Texas Center for High Intensity Laser Science at the University of Texas at Austin (or UT), the research center developed and constructed a 1.1 petawatt laser, the most powerful currently in use. (Previously, a system installed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory broke the petawatt barrier, but it was dismantled in 1999.) For a tenth of a femtosecond (or one tenth of one-trillionth of a second), the Texas Petawatt Laser’s pulse is as powerful as all the power plants in the US. Also, the beam reportedly “is brighter than sunlight on the surface of the Sun.”

10. The Adopt-A-Highway Program
For more on that, read fellow _flosser Scott Allen’s article, “Own the Road: A Brief History of the Adopt-a-Highway Program.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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