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Discomfort Food: The Strange and Twisted History of Ramen Noodles

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What comes to mind when you think of Ramen noodles?

Dormitories, students, slurping sounds ... and cannibalism?

Welcome to the dark history of the world’s favorite comfort food. It all begins with two arch-enemy nations, Japan and China. Though their mutual hatred stretches back over the years, when these countries first made contact around 400 A.D., they were friendly. The Chinese were much more advanced, and the Japanese played eager students, learning such skills as how to write and how to make paper. They even borrowed the Chinese calendar and the Buddhist religion. But by the late 19th century, Japan was feeling superior to its former teacher.

In 1895, the small nation dealt China a humiliating defeat in a naval battle. As spoils of war, they annexed the province of Taiwan and wrestled control of Korea away from Chinese influence. Flexing its empire-building muscle further, Japan soon took over more of China, and in the process, assimilated aspects of its culture. Most notably, martial arts, as well as parts of their cuisine.

And that’s where the Ramen enter the story, although by a different name.

In 1910, two Chinese cooks at Tokyo’s Rairaken restaurant introduced a signature dish with salty broth and noodles. They called it Shina Soba.

Shina was for China, of course. Soba was a buckwheat noodle that was a staple of the Japanese diet. These cooks kneaded their dough with kansui, a bubbly mineral water, which made for a new kind of noodle – longer, yellower and more elastic. Shina Soba caught on like gangbusters.

It wasn’t just the flavor and texture that the Japanese were enjoying. It was what the noodles represented. As Katarzyna Joanna Cwiertka wrote in Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, "By physically interacting with China through the ingestion of Chinese food and drink, the Japanese masses were brought closer to the idea of empire." On a deeper level, the Japanese understood that to eat Shina Soba was to gobble up their enemies. In a sense, it was cannibalism without all the bones and gristle.

Instant Winner

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, the word Shina lost its shine. A leftover token of imperialist aggression and wartime brutality against China (nearly 20 million Chinese were killed), it was seen as an embarrassing ethnic slur. So Shina Soba was renamed Chuka Soba, Chuka being a more acceptable term for Chinese-style. The noodles finally entered the modern age in 1958, when an entrepreneur named Momofuku Ando introduced the first packaged instant version of the dish. Deep-fried and chicken-flavored, dehydrated and pressed into a brick, it was called Chikin Ramen.

The word is derived from the Chinese words la (to pull) and mian (noodle). It quickly evolved to Ramen. After a slow start, Ramen expanded into a worldwide phenomenon, swirling its way into soup bowls from the US to the Ukraine, in endless variations. Curry, shrimp, vegetable, even chili lime. Because of their low cost and easy preparation, the noodles became a staple of students (along with struggling artists and musicians) everywhere.


By 2005, 85.7 billion packs of Ramen were being slurped up every year. Meanwhile, Japan and China buried the hatchet. Sort of. Beneath the peace treaties and official apologies, bad feelings still linger. As Adam Minter reported in Foreign Policy, after Japan’s tragic earthquake in March, the Chinese massive web community was spiked with more than a few variations on this phrase: “Warmly welcome the Japanese earthquake.”

And one final note: Ando lived to the ripe old age of 96, attributing his longevity to two things: playing golf and eating Ramen noodles almost every day.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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