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Niche Blogs: What Kids Eat

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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.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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