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Dietribes: Maple Syrup

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• It takes four maple trees that are at least 40 years old over six weeks to produce 35 to 40 gallons of maple sap, which equates to one gallon of maple syrup (which sells for about $50).

• So what makes sap rise? "The sap we call maple syrup is a special case involving stem pressure," or the way that nutrients are distributed throughout the tree. "'In daytime in late fall through spring, when the leaves are not out, cells in the stem start metabolizing. The process, which is not fully understood, produces carbon dioxide, which collects in the spaces between the cells. The pressure forces the sap out when a hole is made.''

• Don't fake it! In 2011, a bill was introduced to make it a felony to sell fake maple syrup (meaning it is just pure cane sugar). Have you ever been fooled?

• Both the U.S. and Canada have strong ties to maple syrup: Vermont's state quarter and two Canadian coins depict sugar maples or parts of them. And as most of you know, the maple leaf is the national symbol of Canada, appearing on currency, flags, and government logos (and the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team).

• But the real King of Maple Syrup is the Province of Quebec, which produces more maple syrup than all other U.S. states and Canadian provinces combined (in 1998 they made over 4.9 million gallons!)

• You can toast Quebec's success with a Maple Syrup Liquor or have a delicious-looking maple syrup cocktail. (Has anyone tried these?)
 

• To complete your syrup meal, try "Sugar on Snow," a traditional Vermont dish in which freshly boiled syrup is poured on late winter snow, creating a taffy-like consistency. It is traditionally eaten with a sour pickle to offset the sweet maple flavor. (I know some of you have had this! Share your experience with those of us in warm climates who do not understand snow, such as myself).

• Check out how the maple syrup event in New York (the persistent yet mysterious smell of maple syrup over four years) connects to the 311 service (plus a nifty off topic graph about when and what people use 311 for. I wish Atlanta had this!)

• And just like almost anything now, you can take a college class in it! Check out the course description for HONR 172 - Maple Syrup: The Real Thing at Alfred University:

Wanted: Someone with a background in meteorology, chemistry, botany, forestry, art, and cookery who is also a nature lover with lots of patience. Must enjoy long hours of hard work in the snow, cold, and mud. Even though this is an accurate description of a maple syrup producer, don't let it scare you! The method of producing maple syrup is one of the things in our society that has endured even in today's culture of constant change; fundamentally it's the same process Native Americans used centuries ago. This class will explore the history of maple syrup production, discover the ins and outs of making syrup, create (and eat) some sweet confections, and take field trips to local producers, restaurants and festivals. No prior experience expected.

Pretty cool!

• Do you regularly buy real maple syrup? Have you ever gone to collect it from the tree? What do you love to put it on besides waffles? I've only had it a few times in my life but I love it!

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
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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