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Dietribes: Salt Water Taffy

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• First, some mythology: as one story goes, in 1883 a huge storm hit Atlantic City (this isn't the spurious part!) and flooded the boardwalk and the shops, including a whole stock of taffy. When a young girl asked for some, shopkeeper David Bradley jokingly said, "grab some 'salt water taffy.'" Today some recipes for salt water taffy do still call for a teaspoon of salt.

• Don't believe that? Here's another explanation: it's probably due to the proximity of the water to the boardwalk. That fact was used as an early marketing tactic: Joseph Fralinger, known for popularizing taffy, sold "salt water taffy" to sunbathers and tourists as a souvenir (early correspondence from Fralinger refers to the taffy as "Ocean Wave," "Sea Foam" and eventually "Salt Water Taffy"). The results were, of course, a hit!

• James' Salt Water Taffy, a rival of Fralinger's, may be gone from the Boardwalk, but it is not forgotten: the storefront receives a premiere spot on the "Boardwalk Empire" set (Fralinger's is now part of James' Confections).

• Consider it "public domain": In the 1920s "original" salt water taffy was trademarked by John R. Edmiston, who immediately asked the larger taffy companies to share in their profits thanks to the trademark. He was, of course, sued. In 1923 the Supreme Court ruled that the taffy had been around too long and used by too many people to provide royalties.

• The Boardwalk's two biggest taffy rivals, Fralinger's and James', set aside their differences during World War II in order to share their taffy first with the armed forces overseas and then to the wounded servicemen at local hospitals. With the lack of sugar, their factories were sometime shut down for a few days for their regular costumers, but both stores felt it was more important to do their part for the men on the front first (salty and sweet!)

• In the 1920s, salt water taffy was at the height of its popularity. More than 450 manufacturers were making and/or selling the candy at that time.

• Taffy has remained popular: Frank Sinatra holds the record for the largest single mail order: more than 500 boxes of James's taffy went to his friends and relatives the morning after his first performance at Resorts International in 1978. But not everyone is a fan: In 1979, both Resorts and Caesars casinos offered bused-in gamblers a choice of a souvenir box of saltwater taffy or $5 in quarters. Nearly all the gamblers took the money.

• In 1993, Arthur Gager III, a Fralinger descendant, wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of saltwater taffy on the Boardwalk, with the world's longest outdoor taffy pull. But unfortunately, hot sun and muggy humidity reduced the taffy to a gooey mess.

• In better conditions, how is taffy usually made? Pulling taffy aerates it, or incorporates many tiny air bubbles throughout the candy making it lighter and chewier (yum yum).

• Honestly I'm not sure that I've ever had salt water taffy! At least not in a long time. What about you guys? And what are your favorite flavors?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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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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