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5 Things You Didn't Know About Duncan Hines

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You may have a box of Duncan Hines cake mix in your cupboard, but you may not have known that, unlike Betty Crocker, Hines was a real person. Here are five things about the patron saint of powdered dessert mixes that might surprise you.

1. He Got His Start as a Salesman

Hines wasn’t a chef or a master baker himself. In fact, he was a traveling salesman for a printing company. The job doesn’t sound like it would help someone become a food expert, but since Hines was forever on the road – he averaged 40,000-60,000 miles of car travel a year - he ate most of his meals in restaurants. He and his wife, Florence, loved to travel on weekends, which made meals at home even more rare for Hines.

All of those restaurant dinners and lunches started to add up, and Hines soon found himself extremely knowledgeable on the best place to get a bite to eat in towns all over the country. Eventually he and Florence had a fun idea: they compiled a list of recommendations for their favorite restaurants in various cities around the country and sent it to friends as Christmas gifts.

It would be hard to top Hines’ restaurant list for the title of “Most Successful Christmas Newsletter of All Time.” His friends loved it so much that in 1935 Hines turned his travels into a book, Adventures in Good Eating. Book buyers adored Hines’ opinions as much as his friends did, and in 1938 he released a companion book, Lodging for a Night, that told travelers where to stay when they were seeking out these delicious meals. Hines soon became America’s favorite restaurant and hotel critic.

2. The Public Really, Really Trusted Him

Just how much faith did Hines’ readers have in their favorite restaurant rater? It extended well beyond culinary and hospitality matters. A 1946 profile in Life noted, “Some of Hines’ correspondents have grown to trust him so much that it makes him nervous.” The story related this anecdote: a New England reader decided he wanted to buy a farm in Kentucky. Who better to broker the deal than a trusted native Kentuckian like Hines?

The New Englander sent Hines an unsolicited letter asking him to purchase the farm and enclosed a blank, signed check. Hines understandably didn’t think becoming his readers’ real estate agent was a great idea, so he ripped up the check and sent it back to the man with a note asking him not to pull that particular stunt again.

3. He Didn’t Start Out Marketing Cake

Hines is mostly famous as a cake-mix mogul, but the first foodstuff bearing his name to hit markets was an ice cream. The Lehigh Valley Cooperative Farmers dairy of Allentown, PA, started churning out Hines-branded ice cream in the summer of 1950. The treat was an instant success and proved that licensing Hines’ trusted name for snacks could be a viable business strategy.

Louis Hatchett’s biography Duncan Hines: The Man Behind the Cake Mix revealed the ice cream’s secret: it was heavier and contained more butterfat than its competitors. (Future Hines-branded snacks would follow the formula of making products that were richer than what was already on the market.) The ice cream was so tasty that it sold briskly even for the relatively expensive price of 43 cents a pint.

The success of Duncan Hines ice cream showed that Hines was a bankable star for grocers. Nebraska Consolidated Mills introduced the first Duncan Hines cake mixes in the summer of 1951. Duncan Hines bread and pancake mix hit supermarkets in 1952, and blueberry muffin mix followed in 1953.

4. He Wasn’t One to Waste Food

A 2010 piece on local history in The LaCrosse (WI) Tribune explained Hines’ utter disdain for anyone who wasted food. In fact, the potential for waste was Hines’ biggest qualm about the restaurant business, particularly when food was in short supply around the world following World War II.

According to the Tribune story, Hines had been in the kitchen of a favorite LaCrosse restaurant in that era when he began tallying wasted food. The damage included 25 pats of butter that diners had used to stub out cigarettes and a bushel basket of unfinished dinner rolls. The paper recorded Hines as saying that such waste showed a lack of both breeding and patriotism. In other words, you’d better finish that last slice of Duncan Hines cake. Or else.

5. His Favorite Cocktail Sounds Truly Disgusting

Yes, that sentence may sound judgmental, but wait until you hear the ingredients. The aforementioned 1946 profile in Life touched on Hines’ penchant for drinking neat gin or whiskey, but he also enjoyed “Mrs. Hines’s cocktail.” The ingredients: the juice of a watermelon pickle, a whole egg, cream, gin, grenadine, orange-blossom honey, and lime juice. Something’s telling us that concoction is not quite as tasty as Duncan Hines cake mix.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]