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9 Pre-Lenten Treats from Around the World

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Today is Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent in many Christian traditions. Eastern Orthodox Christians begin Great Lent on a slightly different calendar. The day is also called Mardi Gras, Carnival, Pancake Tuesday, and many other names in various languages. What these days have in common is a tradition of a final feast of foods that will be forbidden for the period of Lent which leads up to Easter. Many cultures have developed traditional recipes to use up the household supplies commonly given up for Lent, in order to reduce temptation and waste. That means sugar, eggs, oil, meat, and other calorie-laden staples.

1. Semla

In Sweden, semla is the traditional treat for fettisdag. Semla is a sweet bun laced with cardamon and filled with almond paste and cream, an unbelievably sweet treat eaten with plenty of coffee to wash it down. In Sweden, bakeries compete fiercely to offer the best semla of the season. The semla of the Middle Ages was a rather plain bun eaten up before Lent, but with the Protestant Reformation, Swedes began eating it during Lent as part of the protest. When the fillings were added, it became so rich that it gradually moved back to being a pre-Lenten treat. Similar sweets are offered in other Scandinavian countries by other names, with slight variations in the recipes. In Finland, buns are sometimes filled with raspberry jam. In Denmark, the buns have whipped cream and jam inside. Other versions include raisins or orange peel. Photograph by Flickr user Johan Dalenius.

2. Malasada

Malasadas

Malasada is traditional in both Portugal and Hawaii. The recipe was imported when laborers from Madeira and the Azores worked in sugar plantations in Hawaii. The Shrove Tuesday treat consists of deep-fried balls of yeast dough that are sprinkled with sugar and resemble fluffy doughnuts without the hole. Some recipes call for passionfruit filling. They are best eaten hot from the fryer, with a cup of cocoa. Photograph by Flickr user joyosity.

3. P?czki

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In Poland and in communities with Polish roots, Shrove Tuesday is known as Ostatki. The most common traditional treat is p?czki, a deep-fried jelly doughnut dusted with powdered sugar. They are different from your everyday doughnut in that they contain more eggs, and some recipes call for a little bit of alcohol in the dough, which keeps the oil from penetrating too deeply. P?czki is traditionally eaten on Fat Thursday in Poland, almost a week before Ash Wednesday, but in the U.S., p?czki is common through the Carnival season up through the day of Ostatki. Photograph by Flickr user Tomek Augustyn.

4. Salted Lamb

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Iceland celebrates Sprengidagur, which translates to Bursting Day. It's a day in which you eat to the point of bursting! The traditional feast is salted lamb and peas, or split-pea soup. You can try the recipe if you are comfortable with a mechanical translation. Note that it calls for salt salt. Photograph by Flickr user Ralf Smallkaa.

5. Papanasi

Papanasi - yummy Romanian desert

Romanian pre-Lenten feasts are held on Cheesefare Sunday in the Orthodox tradition. This is the last day dairy products are eaten before Lent. Treats include gogosi, which is another deep-fried doughnut, and papanasi, which is a cottage cheese dumpling. The cheese is mixed with sugar and other ingredients and fried, then served with sour cream and jam. Photograph by Flickr user Ana ADI.

6. Pancakes

Even communities that do not observe Lent will enjoy a traditional Pancake Day, for fundraisers or just for the fun of it. It's a good time to try out some new pancake recipes or techniques. Photograph by Flickr user Rachel.

7. Blini

Caviar & white chocolate on a curry blini

Russians celebrate the week before Great Lent as Pancake Week, or Masletnitsa, by eating blinis, or Russian crepes. But they're not just crepes! Blini before Lent means crepes topped with caviar, smoked salmon, sour cream, onions, or sugary toppings. Photograph by Flickr user LexnGer.

8. Nalysnyky

In the Ukraine, Cheesefare Sunday feasts feature nalysnyky (crepes) that are rolled up with the cottage cheese that must be finished before Great Lent. This type of nalysnyky is eaten as a main course, as observant Orthodox adherents have given up meat already by Cheesefare Sunday. Nalysnyky can also be filled with fruit or orange sauce as a dessert. See how nalysnyky is made at Claudia's Cookbook.

9. King Cake

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In Alabama, Louisiana, and other places that celebrate Mardi Gras, the King Cake is the traditional sweet. The King Cake started as a Christmas treat in Europe, and was named for the visit of the Magi. A dried bean was baked into the cake, and the person who was served the part containing the bean became the "king" of the celebration. As Christmas stretched to Twelfth Night, the cake continued to be served, and that tradition stretched into Carnival season. In the U.S., the bean began to be used on Twelfth Night to designate who would be the Queen of the Ball for Mardi Gras. Over time, the bean (or sometimes a coin) was replaced by a small ceramic or plastic baby. In the last 50 years, a tradition developed in which neighborhood parties were held every weekend from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, and whoever got the baby would bake the King Cake for the next party. Photograph by Flickr user Logan Brown.

This is just a short overview of some pre-Lenten treats from different places. The list of traditional foods goes on and on. Which are your favorite treats?

See also: 7 Carnivals Around the World, Parade Time in New Orleans, and Happy Pancake Day!

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