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8 Great Arguments from the Latke-Hamentash Debate

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Every year, a few weeks before Hanukkah begins, eminent scholars don their formal academic robes and convene in one of the great Gothic halls at the University of Chicago to present their arguments on the most important question of our time: Latke or hamentash?

The hamentash is a triangular pastry with a sweet filling served during the Jewish holiday of Purim. The latke, of course, is the fried potato pancake eaten during Hanukkah. The merits and drawbacks of each have been passionately expounded upon since the first Lake-Hamentash Debate held in 1946. The rules of the debate, according to Ruth Fredman Cernea in the introduction to her book The Great Latke-Hamentash Debate, are that "all participants must hold a PhD or equivalent degree; arguments should be framed according to the theoretical position and jargon of the participant's academic discipline; and each symposium must include someone who is not Jewish—to lend a note of 'gentility.'"

The tradition of the latke-hamentash debate has since spread to other universities. Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur "Genius" Fellows alike have held forth on the metaphysical, philosophical, semiotic, sociological, literary, and historical implications of latkeness vs. hamentashness. Naturally, sentiment tends to veer toward the latke. In celebration of Hanukkah, here are eight great arguments (one for each night) from the last several decades of the Latke-Hamentash Debate.

1. From "Latkes, Hamentashen, and the History of Science," by physicist Morrel H. Cohen.

"How else was Kepler able to arrive at the ellipsoidal shape of the orbits of the planets around the sun but by contemplation of the appearance of the well-cooked latke? How else to account for the decrease of the vigor of Italian science in the late Renaissance but by the displacement of the latke by pasta and its subsequent degeneration to mere gnocchi? Can one believe that the fall of an apple is sufficiently inspiring to lead Newton to the theory of universal gravitation? But the slither of a latke to the floor as one attempts to cut it: that is thought-provoking in the extreme. Would that Newton could have admitted the truth."

2. From "Notes toward a Reinterpretation of American Literature" by Marvin Mirsky, professor of humanities.

"In the famous chapter 43, entitled 'The Whiteness of the Whale,' Melville confronts us with the fundamental and profound duality of the monstrous creature. Is the whiteness a symbol of virtue and goodness, or is it the emblem of terror and evil? Is the whale a three-dimensional latke, wallowing in its gargantuan and blubbery circularity, bodying forth the benign and virtuous aspect of nature? Or is the whale a gigantic hamantash, tapering from its massive triangular head to its tail fins, and incarnating the darkness, the malevolence, the evil in the universe? Ahab takes the whale for a hamantash, and carries his ship and crew with him to destruction."

3. From "Freedom, Latkes, and American Letters: An Original Contribution to Knowledge" by historian Bernard Weisberger.

"As anyone who has read Fredrick Jackson Turner knows, the seeds of American democratic institutions were planted on the frontier. And as any student of American history knows, the frontier was a place where the simplest and crudest instruments of life had to do double duty. In cookery, the uncomplicated frying pan was the pioneer's first resource; the axe, rifle, and skillet were the weapons in the conquest of the wilderness. And what kind of dish do we make in a frying pan? I assure you, it is not the high-priced confection. That demands an oven—a more complicated piece of engineering—to say nothing of such exotic, un-American, and civilized ingredients as prunes or poppy seeds."

4. From "The Apotheosis of the Latke" by philosopher Alan Gewirth.

"Let us begin with Plato. It is not generally known that Plato's immortal writings, nowadays called 'dialogues,' were originally called 'dialatkes.' They were so called, of course, because they provided such a well-rounded, succulent intellectual feast. It was Plato's writings of dialatkes that gave his whole philatkophy its rich and yeasty flavor, both spiritual and earthy. It is even less well known that Plato's greatest pupil, nowadays called Aristotle, was originally named 'Aristlatke,' from the Greek word 'aristos,' meaning 'best,' and 'latke.' In other words, Aristlatke was so called because he was the best of all latke-eaters who participated in Plato's dialatkes."

5. From "The Scientific Method" by astrophysicist Edward Kolb.

"Sadly, the quark structure of latkes and hamantashen has received precious little attention from scientists. This is due, no doubt, to the scandalous state of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy budgets. What I will unveil now is the outline for a sound scientific program to study the latke/hamatash quark structure. This program is courageous in scope, bold in vision, and, I am most proud to say, damned expensive…This new machine, the Superconducting Super Hamalatkatron, or SSH for short, can be constructed at the modest cost of 8.264 billion dollars, a price which includes tax, tip, and dealer prep…The food would be accelerated to high energy using the single strongest force known, the force of guilt."

6. From "Euripides' The Cooks of Troy: Hecuba's Lament" by philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Up, unhappy head, up from the dust.
This is no longer Troy.
And I, Hecuba, was the chief cook of Troy.
Now we are routed by the Greek onslaught
that laid waste the gleaming kitchen of the kings.
--Greeks greedily gorging on my cakes
(both the round cakes and the sweet pointed cakes)
with a gluttony that knew no moderation.
Alas, the battle of the kitchen lost. Alas, my ruined royal garments.
Yield to fortune, yield to spilled dishwater.
Don't hold life's prow against the swelling tide of garbage.

7. From "Heartburn as a Cultural System" by anthropologist Michael Silverstein.

"The riddle of the latke and the homntash can never be 'solved' as such, as it were, until these two are viewed as gustemes of a gustemic poetry of music that is full of sound and fury—at least of prune filling—but that signifies nothing if not heard in its textual plentitude, which we must deconstruct before we can digest. With all due respect to my learned colleagues here assembled, arguing over the priority of invention, or using external criteria of worth, are clearly just the most subjective and unconvincing of partisan strategies. No, once you've caught a code, you've seized the germ of the system of symbols, only in terms of which can any symbol's meaning be understood. It is an edible logic of—if you're not careful with the dough—the concrete."

8. From "Restoring the Jewish Cannon" by philosopher Allan Bloom

"What is bad is not that the economists say that man can live on latkes or hamentashen alone, but that they are vulgar materialists, not understanding the unique Jewish blending of matter and spirit in them which defies economists' categories. They think that consumer preference should determine the value of these sacred objects, repeating Locke's error that labor is the source of value. They think that there are proper terms of comparison between latkes and, say, pizza. Survival, bodily need, is all they know—as though anyone who was interested in health would eat Jewish food...Practically, the first thing to be done is to remove this debate from the control of the Manischewitz heretics and their agents, the Business School, and return it to the philosopher-kings; for only when wisdom and latke-hamantash coincide will evils cease."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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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]

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