CLOSE
Original image

Niche Blogs: What Kids Eat

Original image

Chicken nuggets and pizza, right? That's what kids would eat if we let them decide for themselves, but we're concerned about raising the quality, and sometimes regulating the quantity, of children's nutrition. And of course, that leads to blogs that impress us one way or another.

Nine-year-old Martha Payne posts pictures of her meals at NeverSeconds, a school lunch blog that's caused a stir in England. The blog was only started last month, so it doesn't have a lot of posts yet. What the Sun doesn't know (they discovered LOLcats just this month) is that there are quite a few blogs dedicated to school lunches.

Sarah Wu started an interesting project in January of 2010. The public school teacher decided to eat a cafeteria lunch at school every day for a year and document her thoughts and post photographs, to raise awareness about the poor quality of school lunches in the U.S. It's all in the blog Fed Up With Lunch: The School Lunch Project and the book she wrote about it. After 2010, she continued blogging about various subjects related to school lunches and nutrition, with an occasional lunch post.

In contrast to the dissatisfaction of school lunch, Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything, has a blog that posts school menus from France. At French schools, there is no "kids' food," but school menus that adults would appreciate. Could they be as good as they sound?

If this picture is any indication, the answer is yes! It's from the blog What's For School Lunch? which brings us photographs of school lunches from around the world. The first page is heavy on Japanese lunches right now, but if you look through the archives, you'll find examples, both found and submitted, from nations all over the world. From what I gather, school lunches look delicious but skimpy in Africa and India, an adventure in Asia, sad in the former Soviet bloc countries, and vary widely in the U.S. and U.K. ...and a French school lunch is to die for.

Japanese School Lunches is by a student who has documented lunches for a couple of years now, with pictures and menu, but no commentary. Most look yummy if you like Japanese food, and the dishes are quite nice, too!

The Lunch Tray by Bettina Elias Siegel is about kids' food in general, but you know that includes a lot about school lunches -not necessarily documenting them, but information and advocacy about the school lunch program in the U.S. Siegel also has recipes, stories, and information about getting kids to eat right.

Blog for Family Dinner is a collaborative blog that invites your input. Recent posts cover recipes, policy, and meal planning, but what interested me was the personal stories of what a family dinner means, and how different they can be around the world and in other times. Dietician Natalia Stasenko wrote about the difficulties her family had eating in Russia 30 years ago, and how different her family life is now. It is only one of many thoughtful posts on family dining.

So maybe you want to pack your child's lunch? You can make it not only nutritious and delicious, but fun to look at! Anna the Red runs one of the premier bento blogs, as she is an artist with a lunchbox. A recent entry shows lunch in tribute to author Maurice Sendak. But there are plenty of bento box blogs, like Just Bento, What's for Lunch at Our House, Happy Little Bento, Lunch in a Box, My Meal Box, Leggo My Obento, and you'll find more at the Bento Blog Network.

One thing kids will eat is pancakes. But if you have a stubborn child, pancakes are easily made into artworks that will entice them! There are several pancake art blogs. The taco meal shown above is completely made of pancakes. It's from Michael Goudeau’s Pancake Project, which seems to have been discontinued since he published a book, but there are plenty of artful pancakes in the archives.

Jim's Pancakes appears to have gone the same way, ceasing publication when his book came out. Jim creates wonderful pancake sculptures inspired by his children, Allison and Ryan. One of the last posted was this all-pancake Star Wars At-At.

The latest pancake blog sensation is Saipancakes, by Nathan Shields, a stay-at-home-dad on leave from teaching math. His pancake creations show his interest in science (as well as everything else) as he pours pancakes in theme groups. A recent post has a video tutorial on how he does it.

Once again, I confronted a long list of interesting blogs to tell you about and got distracted when I explored more from the same genre. There will be a list of niche blogs on a variety of subjects to check out soon. See previous posts in this series also.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
arrow
technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
arrow
science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
arrow
BIG QUESTIONS
SECTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES