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Food Lessons From the U.S. Government

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On July 4, award-winning chef Jose Andres opened a pop-up restaurant in Washington, DC. America Eats Tavern pays homage to the culinary history of the U.S., with proceeds supporting the Foundation for the National Archives. The restaurant opened in conjunction with the National Archives’ “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?”—an exhibit that explores how the Government has affected America’s food consumption.

Both the restaurant and exhibit will be open for six months.

The WPA’s America Eats! Project

America Eats Tavern takes its name from the Works Progress Administration’s 1930s writing project, which paid laid-off writers and reporters to document food and culinary experiences of various regions throughout the country.

Funding for the project was cut before it was completed and unpublished manuscripts from contributors across the United States were sent to the Library of Congress. Author Pat Willard compiled some of those essays in her 2008 book, America Eats: On the Road with the WPA. Willard quotes a memo from a WPA supervisor who describes the goal of the project thusly: “If we can make Americans realize that they have the best table in the world, we shall have helped to deepen national patriotism.”

The final product was never intended to be a cookbook, though recipes do appear in many of the manuscripts. Rather, the essays were supposed to capture how Americans ate, and the entire culinary experience. (A similar project today might make mention of the recent pop-up restaurant trend, which has been popularized by the likes of chef Ludo Lefebvre and the Guerilla Culinary Brigade.)

The Restaurant

The downstairs level at America Eats Tavern features such American staples as hot dogs, lobster rolls, and cheesesteaks, while the upstairs dining room is more formal. The menu includes some favorites from past presidents, including Clinton Gazpacho and Eisenhower Stew, and a short history lesson about every item. For instance:

Shrimp ‘N’ Anson Mills Grits (Jamestown, 1607): Native Americans first taught the colonists to hull corn into hominy, creating one of the first truly American foods. Here we use creaming Anson Mills grits, carefully milled from rediscovered heirloom corn.

Spoonbread with Oyster Ice Cream and Caviar (Eliza Leslie, the Lady’s Receipt Book, 1847): First named as Indian Puffs, this spoonbread is so light it could almost be a soufflé. The ice cream was inspired by one of Mark Twain’s favorite snacks.

Buffalo Wings (Buffalo, 1964): A late-night inspiration by Teressa Belissimo to impress her bar-tending son and his hungry friends. Rather than throw the wings into a stock, Teressa transformed them into something fried and spicy. They were an immediate hit.

Chesapeake Crabcakes with Pickled Watermelon Salad (Lord Baltimore Hotel, 1932): Just four years after opening, the landmark Baltimore hotel published the first known recipe for this Chesapeake favorite.

The Exhibit

“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” is open through Jan. 3 and features an impressive collection of posters, photographs, and documents related to food production and consumption in the United States. The exhibit takes visitors back to a time when butter and fortified margarine were promoted as an essential daily food group and Americans were encouraged to eat cottage cheese as a protein substitute for meat. Here are a few of the posters on display:

I'd like to know more about that "eat any other foods you want" part.

From the National Archives: "During World War I, the Food Administration under Herbert Hoover promoted 'Meatless Mondays.' This poster suggests cottage cheese as a protein substitute."

The Nutrition Division of the War Food Administration wouldn't go along with the term "Vitamin Donuts," which had been proposed by the Doughnut Corporation. One day...

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.