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Photograph by Flickr user gabriela talarico

Ice Cream or Not Ice Cream?

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Photograph by Flickr user gabriela talarico

As we plod through the heat wave of the summer, few things are more refreshing than an ice cream treat. The biggest problem is getting it from the store to the house before it melts! But if you look in the supermarket aisle full of frozen treats, the products range from popsicles to ice cream to generic "artificially-flavored frozen non-dairy dessert," whatever that means. Ice cream by any other name would taste as sweet, right? Actually, what you get in most frozen treats is standardized by how they are labeled. You should know what you're getting in ice cream, ice milk, sherbet, frozen custard, sorbet, etc. Note: these definitions and usages are for the United States only. Your ice cream may vary.

In the United States, ice cream must contain 10% milk fat, plus nonfat milk solids that bring the solid milk content to 20%. There are some exceptions to these standards when the content of "bulky flavorings" (such as chocolate) are within certain parameters. Ice cream must contain no more than 1.4% egg yolk. If the content goes beyond that, the product is labeled frozen custard. Ice cream doesn't even have to use cream, as long as the dairy products used fit the milk fat and nonfat milk solid standards. The dairy ingredients may be milk, evaporated milk, skim milk, butter, butter oil, buttermilk, or cream in various forms.

rainbow sherbet

Photograph by Flickr user Carr23.

Sherbet is a fruit-based frozen dairy dessert, which must have between 1% and 2% milk fat, and the same amount of nonfat milk solids. The total solid milk content should be between 2% and 5%. Fruit content in sherbet must be 10% for most fruits, including tomato and rhubarb, 6% for berries, and 2% for citrus fruits. Have you ever encountered tomato or rhubarb sherbet?

Mellorine is an ice cream substitute that I'd never heard of until today. The USDA standards for mellorine are that it contain pasteurized milk, but the fat content may come from an animal or vegetable source besides milk. The fat content must be 6% and the protein content must be at least 2.7%. Once again, these standards may be adjusted slightly to account for the composition of the flavoring ingredients. A federal court just last year said mellorine should not be classified as a dairy productfor the purpose of import tariffs.

Morris Ice Cream Van

Photograph by Flickr user Danny McL.
Ice milk standards state that the product contains no less than 3.25% milk fatand no more than 0.6% vegetable gum or gelatin. Courts have held that products named "Icy Kream" and "Ice Cremo" were misleading when attached to desserts that only met the ingredient standards for ice milk.

Frozen Custard Diner

Photograph by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks.
Frozen custard must meet the same milk content standards as ice cream, but custard contains more than the 1.4% egg yolk limitfor ice cream. Frozen custard may also be labeled as "French ice cream."

The Meadows

Photograph by Flickr user Alex Valli.
Frozen yogurt has no particular labeling standards in the United States. For a product to be called yogurt, the National Yogurt Association says it must contain two strains of beneficial bacteria: streptococcus thermophilus and lactobacillus bulgaricus. However, the cultures do not have to be live -they can be killed by heat treatment or, of course, freezing.

Strawberry Swirl

Photograph by Flickr user Joshua Zamrycki.
Soft serve is ice cream, ice milk, or other frozen dessert that is stirred while being frozen and usually has air whipped into it, making it softer and easier to eat. The amount of air may range from nothing to 60%depending on the vendor. Too much air may make a cone look huge, but it also causes the soft serve to melt too fast. If a product is advertised as "soft serve ice cream," "soft serve frozen custard," etc. it must conform to the standards of that product, minus the air.

Strawberry sorbet with Gingersnaps

Photograph by Flickr user starleigh.
Sorbet is a frozen dessert made from sugar and water and flavored with fruit juice, liqueur, or wineand contains no dairy products at all. That makes it similar to what we refer to in the U.S. as slushes, popsicles, and Italian ice (which only sometimes contain any real fruit juice). In normal usage, the term sorbet is reserved for a fancier dessert.


Photograph by Flickr user Lucee.

Gelato is the Italian word for ice cream. However, the term is used for Italian-style ice cream, which is served warmer and just slightly melted. That's good, because ice cream in Italy is churned more slowly and contains less air than American-style ice cream. It also contains less milk fat, so the label gelato is often used for a frozen dessert that does not quite meet U.S. milk content standards.

Guess which one is mine

Photograph by Flickr user Tilemahos Efthimiadis.

Frappe is a word that simply means "chilled or partly frozen." As a product, it is a term used for sherbet, milkshake, and iced coffee -and possibly other products. If you aren't sure of what you are ordering, you should ask.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.