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Who Was General Tso?

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Zuo Zongtang (sometimes written as Zu? Z?ngtáng or Tso Tsung-t'ang) was one of the greatest military leaders of China’s long and storied history. He rose quickly through the ranks of the army, quelled rebellions, served with distinction in a civil war, founded a modern arsenal and dockyard, established new, efficient logistics systems within his armies, forced Russian forces from China, and went on to serve in several positions in the national government.


In the West, particularly the U.S. and Canada, we know him simply as General Tso, namesake of a Chinese takeout chicken dish.

Tso It Goes

Zuo was born in 1812 in Hsiangyin, Hunan, to a family of wealthy landowners.

His family’s money allowed him to pursue an extensive education; he was able to obtain a chu-jen ( “promoted scholar”), the second-highest academic degree awarded in the imperial civil service exams. He made three attempts to qualify for the highest degree, chin-shih (“ready for office”) and failed each time. He gave up hope for work in the imperial bureaucracy and returned to Hunan. There, he worked as a tutor for the family of a former governor general, got married, and pursued a variety of quiet interests. He farmed silkworms and tea, wrote a book on agriculture, read about the sciences, and studied politics. He referred to himself as “The Husbandman of the River Hsiang.”

In 1850, a civil war known as the Taiping Rebellion broke out between the forces of Hong Xiuquan and the governing Qing Dynasty. Xiuquan, a convert to Christianity who claimed to have received visions that revealed him as the son of God and the younger brother of Jesus Christ, had established Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and taken control of a large swath of southern China. He attempted to replace the country’s indigenous religions with his own form of Christianity and enact social reforms in line with his ideology.

Two years into the war, Zuo was hired as an advisor by the staff of the governor of Hunan and given full control over the province’s military. The peaceful silkworm farmer turned out to be a gifted and ruthless soldier, and earned comparisons to his contemporary, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman.

Zuo drove the Taiping rebels out of Hunan and then the neighboring Guangxi province, followed them into coastal Zhejiang (after his victory there, he was appointed governor of the province and an Undersecretary of War) then south into Fujian and Guangdong, the seat of the rebellion. There, he dethroned the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’s teenage monarch and crushed the rebellion.

The following year, he was appointed Viceroy and Governor-General of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces and Commissioner of the Naval Industries. In this capacity, he created the Goochow Arsenal, China's first modern arsenal, shipyard and naval academy. Appointments to the offices of Viceroy and Governor-General of Shaanxi and Gansu provinces and Imperial Commissioner of the Army in Shaanxi would follow.

Zuo returned to the battlefield to suppress the Nien Rebellion in northern China, then marched west to defeat the Dungan Revolt. Later, he quashed an uprising of foreign Muslims led by Muhammad Yaqub Bek and negotiated an end to the Russian occupation of the western border city of Ili. Supposedly, he managed all these victories while also suffering through recurring bouts of malaria and dysentery.

For his service to the Empire, Zuo appointed a Grand Secretary and later a Marquessate. For his final promotion, he was appointed to the Grand Council, the cabinet of the Qing Empire. Zuo quickly tired of imperial politics and requested to be relieved of his position. He did return once more to the military when the Sino-French War broke out—he was commissioned as Commander-in-Chief and Imperial Commissioner of the Army and Inspector General. He oversaw coastal defense through the war and died shortly after a truce was reached, in 1885.

Which Came First: the Chicken or the General?

Image credit: Jennifer 8. Lee

Zuo’s life as a military hero is well documented (there’s even a billboard on the road going into his hometown that features his likeness), but his connection to the chicken dish named after him is a different story. Food historians know this much for sure: the dish is a loose interpretation of an old Hunan dish called chung ton gai (“ancestor meeting place chicken” or “ancestral meeting hall chicken”). After that, it’s all a matter of whom you ask.

I’d like to believe that General Tso’s chicken might have been prepared by Zuo himself in the field, or cooked for him by an admirer after a triumphant return from battle. It would make a great story—but there’s no evidence that the dish ever passed through the general's lips, or his pained bowels. Furthermore the general was known as a picky eater and the dish is atypical of Hunan cuisine. Zuo was more of a pork guy than a chicken guy, anyway. When he was sent to the Muslim-majority Xinjang province on a military expedition, his pork intake was curtailed. Upon his return, a feast was served in celebration and he supposedly told his hosts that, while he wasn’t entertained with the musicians and dancers, the meal more than made up for the long, pork-less expedition.

There are several different histories of how the dish was invented, and why it bears the general's name. These stories all start with the Chinese diaspora. One thing we have to keep in mind when talking about General Tso and his chicken is that the Taiping Rebellion was the greatest upheaval of 19th-century China (as well as the bloodiest civil war in history). It caused massive population displacements and shifts across the southern and eastern parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to other regions of China or left entirely. Many came to the United States, and one origin story goes that these immigrants, to honor the sword skills of the imperial hero from the homeland, chopped up their chicken the way that Tso might have sliced and diced his enemies. The dish’s flavors are explained as the hot, spicy tastes of Zuo’s Hunanese cuisine colliding with the sweet tastes preferred by the primarily Cantonese immigrants.

Or Maybe Chef Peng Chang-kuei Was Responsible

Another creation story, one of the most widely spread, gives credit to Chef Peng Chang-kuei (a.k.a. Peng Jia). Peng, like Zuo, was born in Hunan in 1919. He trained under a chef who worked for a provincial government official. Through this apprenticeship and connections to government gourmand, Peng found himself in charge of Nationalist government banquets by the end of World War II. When civil war broke out and Mao Zedong’s Soviet-backed Communist forces took control of the country in 1949, Peng fled with the Nationalists to Taiwan.

In Taiwan, Peng continued to cater official functions, and he invented many new dishes. According to Peng, at some point in the mid-1950s, he created an especially hot dish with typically Hunanese flavors and named it in honor of the second-most-famous military man from his home province. Why didn’t he name if for the first-most-famous? Because that was Mao Zedong, the man who’d caused his exile.

In the 1970s, Peng came to America and opened up a restaurant in New York. It was popular enough, but Hunanese food was pretty unknown in the United States. It didn’t really catch on until one fan began talking the place up. Peng had set up shop near the United Nations building and, one day, Henry Kissinger stopped by for a meal. He loved it, visiting Peng’s every time he was in New York and singing the chef’s praises in Washington and around the world. Peng’s American customers still didn’t take to the heat and spice of Hunanese food, though, so Peng invented new dishes and adapted old ones to better suit American tastes.

One major change to General Tso’s chicken was the addition of sugar to the sauce, resulting in something a little bit closer to the General Tso’s chicken we know today. Several other Chinese immigrant cooks in New York, most notably T.T. Wang, have also claimed they invented the dish around the same time (and in more or less the same manner).


Of course, the new dish wasn’t too close to what you and I indulge in today. General Tso’s as most of us know it is completely unrecognizable to Peng, altered in every way imaginable by countless Chinese American cooks. When author Jennifer 8. Lee went to China to research her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, she met Chef Peng and showed him a number of photos of different American interpretations of his most famous dish. When they got to the version from a restaurant in New Hampshire that featured baby corn and carrots, Peng called it moming-qimiao—nonsense—and almost stormed out.

When Peng brought his version of the dish to Chinese diners with a new restaurant in Hunan in 1990, it was panned as being too sweet. More recently, though, Hunanese chefs and foodies have started to come around to General Tso’s chicken. Whether they like it or not, it’s the one Hunanese dish everyone has heard of since the General conquered the world.

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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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