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The People Behind 4 Iconic Valentine's Day Candies

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It’s that time of year when we can kind of, sort of indulge in some guilt-free chocolate goodness—after all, if your Significant Other has gifted you with some Valentine’s sweetness, you don’t want to hurt their feelings and reach for the celery instead, right? But while you’re sneaking yet another morsel, have you ever wondered about that name on the lid of the box? Is that a real person adding an inch or two to our waistlines?

1. Russell Stover

Russell Stover and Clara Lewis both grew up on hardscrabble farms in Iowa in the late 1800s, and after they married in 1911, they moved to Saskatchewan, Canada, to raise wheat and flax on a 580 acre farm of their own. Sadly, a year of bad weather and a flood washed away their livelihood. With the pluck so typical of tenacious farm folk of the time, Russell and his wife moved to Winnipeg, where he got a job working in a candy factory. He spent the next few years learning everything he could about candy making, and eventually, after the couple had moved to Iowa, his wife started experimenting with different recipes in their home kitchen. Stover’s watershed moment came in 1921 when a young soda jerk presented him with an idea for a vanilla ice cream bar encased in a crunchy chocolate coating. The young man’s version melted easily and had other flaws, so Russell went to work fine-tuning the manufacturing process. When Russell introduced the Eskimo Pie a few months later, he sold a quarter million units in 24 hours in Omaha alone. Sadly, despite the popularity of the product, Stover spent the bulk of his profits on defending his patent against a host of imitators. He finally sold the Eskimo Pie business and used the $30,000 to launch a line of hand-dipped chocolates that Clara had been perfecting back at home.

2. Stephen Whitman

Stephen Whitman was just 19 years old when he opened a confectionary “shoppe” on Philadelphia’s Market Street in 1842. Because it was near the shipyards, he had a steady stream of sailors among his customers, and this turned out to be providential; seafarers brought him samples of exotic candies purchased abroad, and once he cracked a particular recipe, they were also able to bring him the necessary ingredients from overseas. Whitman was also something of a marketing genius and was one of the first to advertise his products in newspapers and magazines. He eventually packaged bite-sized pieces of his various chocolates in a “best of”-type box, which he called a Sampler. Walter Sharp, who took over as company president in 1911, came up with the Sampler box design based on a cross-stitch his grandmother had made. Sharp also used his marketing savvy to get the Samplers placed in “better drugstores” around the country, and also instituted a money-back guarantee that is still in place today.

3. Fannie May

Founded in Chicago in 1920, Henry Teller Archibald named his candy company “Fannie May” to give the impression of a kindly old grandmother tirelessly hand-dipping chocolates in her country kitchen. Fannie May soon became a leading retailer of fine chocolates in the Midwest, even though they were forced to close many stores during World War II due to the rationing of necessary ingredients (rather than switch to inferior substitutes). Fannie May has had further financial ups and downs over the years, including a bankruptcy filing, but today the company is owned by the folks at 1-800-FLOWERS and is still selling their Pixies and Buttercreams to dedicated customers. Interestingly enough, Mrs. Archibald—the woman whose family provided the seed money back in 1920 to fund her husband’s company—made headlines in 1930 when she was awarded a then-substantial (it was the Great Depression, after all) $1 million divorce settlement on the grounds of desertion. It seems Ol’ Henry had run off and married another woman in Florida without officially severing his previous marital ties.

4. Laura Secord

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During the War of 1812, a loyalist named Laura Secord, whose husband had been injured at the Battle of Queenston Heights, received some intelligence information and walked 20 miles across the Niagara Peninsula to warn British forces of an impending American attack. Her effort helped the British to stop the U.S. invaders at Beaver Dams, and 47 years later Edward VII rewarded her with £100. What does this have to do with chocolate? Nothing, except that Frank O’Connor decided to capitalize on her fame when he founded his candy company in Toronto in 1913. Six years later, he expanded his operation south of the border, but since the name Laura Secord wasn’t recognizable to American ears, he chose another famous name, Fanny Farmer, after the culinary expert who was famous for her cookbooks.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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