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Cashew Nuts Grow Out of Crazy Apples

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Getty Images

File this under Seems Like a Hoax, But Isn't: cashew nuts grow from the bottom of "cashew apples," shown above. The apple portion is (adorably) called an "accessory fruit," and it's the handbag to this outfit -- the nut beneath the apple is the part most of us actually eat. To make things weirder, that "nut" isn't actually a nut in the botanical sense of the word -- it's a seed. I tell you, the world is strange indeed.

What Cashew Apples Are Good For

Cashew Apples

© Getty Images

The cashew apple is a delicate accessory fruit. It's considered an accessory because it grows out of tissue other than the ovary of the flower. (In case you want a deep dive on flower ovaries, Wikipedia has you covered.)

Cashew apples go by the Spanish name marañón, and they can be made into juices, jams, and even a liqueur called fenny (reportedly, fenny is good with tonic water or cola). The ripe red and yellow apples are also used in Indian cooking, and can be used to sweeten up a curry. Unfortunately, the apples are delicate, and their juice can easily stain clothing -- in many countries, the apples are fed to livestock because they're so fragile.

Nutty Toxicity

Cashews Before Roasting

(Cashews before roasting - © Getty Images.)

The cashew nut seed is a kidney-shaped snack surrounded by several toxic layers intended to keep animals from gobbling it up. Outside the seed is a double shell filled with anacardic acid, which causes a skin rash on contact. On the bright side, the acid has medical uses -- it's mildly antibacterial and antifungal, and it's sometimes used to relieve toothaches. The acid can also be used to fight termites. In order to make the cashew seed edible, it's typically roasted to neutralize the acid -- but roasters urge caution, because the smoke that comes off the acid is itself toxic. Prior to becoming the rich beige we're familiar with, the seed itself is green as seen above.

Purdue University explains how the cashew made its way from Brazil to other tropical climates...and how the cashew apple was the main attraction for many years (emphasis added):

The cashew is native to northeast Brazil and, in the 16th Century, Portuguese traders introduced it to Mozambique and coastal India, but only as a soil retainer to stop erosion on the coasts. It flourished and ran wild and formed extensive forests in these locations and on nearby islands, and eventually it also became dispersed in East Africa and throughout the tropical lowlands of northern South America, Central America and the West Indies. It has been more or less casually planted in all warm regions and a few fruiting specimens are found in experimental stations and private gardens in southern Florida.

The production and processing of cashew nuts are complex and difficult problems. Because of the great handicap of the toxic shell oil, Latin Americans and West Indians over the years have been most enthusiastic about the succulent cashew apple and have generally thrown the nut away or processed it crudely on a limited scale, except in Brazil, where there is a highly developed cashew nut processing industry, especially in Ceara. In Mozambique, also, the apple reigned supreme for decades. Attention then focused on the nut, but, in 1972, the industrial potential of the juice and sirup from the estimated 2 million tons of surplus cashew apples was being investigated. In India, on the other hand, vast tonnages of cashew apples have largely gone to waste while that country pioneered in the utilization and promotion of the nut.

Cashew Apple with Roasted Nuts

Cashews after roasting - © Getty Images

Video Proof

To convince you that the cashew apple exists, I dug up some shaky cellphone footage of one tree growing in Homestead, Florida:

Oh, who am I kidding? It's clearly a hoax, right? Well, wait, here's a video shot in Costa Rica, in which a nice vegan fellow shows us how to eat a cashew apple:

If that's not enough for you, here's a frenetic video showing a Vietnamese cashew processing system. I think we can conclude that these are real. Now I want one.

Have You Eaten a Cashew Apple?

I'm curious what these cashew apples taste like. Anyone want to share recipes?

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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