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4 Defenses of the Hamantash from the Latke-Hamantash Debate

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This weekend is the Jewish holiday of Purim, and families will be headed to the bakery for the hamantashen, the traditional triangular poppy seed or fruit filled pastries. But the hamantash has always had a hard time competing with the latke, the potato pancake eaten at Hanukkah, in the age old latke-hamantash debate.

As we discussed a few months ago during latke season, the University of Chicago has held a formal, academic debate on the merits of the latke versus the hamantash every year since 1946. This year, due to a dispute involving the previous sponsor of the debate, it was held in mid-February, just before Purim, instead of just before Hanukkah, as it had been in past years. Could things be looking up for the hamantash?

The debate still came down on the side of latkes this year, but not unanimously. Law professor Douglas Baird stood up for the hamantash, citing the unhealthiness of the greasy latke. In Slate yesterday, L.V. Anderson writes, "if you’re an unthinking member of Team Latke, you clearly have never had a good hamantasch" and goes on to give the recipe for a good and proper homemade hamantash. In honor of the underappreciated Purim treat, here are 4 classic arguments for the hamantash from the latke-hamantash debate.

1. From "The Latke, the Hamantash, and the Struggle for a Symbol of the American National Character," by historian Hasia Diner.

"After all, what is a hamantash? A three-cornered pastry, it has no single property which characterizes it, but rather like the pluralism Horace Kallen hoped for in a liberalized America, it derives its essence from the distinctiveness of its parts. It is made up of two equal sections—the crust and the filling—neither of which has to give up anything in order to be part of the whole. Unlike latkes, the symbol of the melting pot with its narrow definition of American identity, the hamantash does not require people to subject themselves to meltdown nor does it force them to have their cultures and customs beaten out of them and amalgamated in a bowl or frying pan. Rather, it offers a culinary/cultural metaphor of gently wrapping the dough of America around an almost infinite array of fillings, and thus proving that diversity can be folded into the American system without surrendering integrity and authenticity."

2. From "The Hermeneutics of Hamantash," by Emelie S. Passow, Professor of English Literature.

"Indeed, aesthetically, the hamantash incorporates more elements of a robust creative process than does the lame latke. Simply compare and contrast these elegant steps necessary to mold a hamantash with the messy ones implicated in preparing the latke: to gather (the flour, eggs, water, oil, and sugar), to knead, to shape, and to fill with…to peel, to putter, and to fry.

"Aurally speaking, the hamantash bakes in silence akin to the workings of the mysteries of the universe: light, gravity, consciousness. In other words, the hamantash is no less than an objective correlative for the unbearable lightness of being."

3. From "The Hamantash in Shakespeare," by Lawrence Sherman, Professor of Medicine.

"Shall I compare these to a hot latke?
Thou art less fattening, more digestible,
While heartburn is the latke-eater's lot
(A fatal fact quite incontestable).
Consumed by that which he was nourished by,
The glutton soon cries out in vain, "Surcease,"
And then his appetite and he both die
As martyrs to an overdose of grease.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Immortal poppy seed, O Hamantash:
The gourmet's appetite thou ne'er dost jade
When happily he has thee for a nosh.
Thy taste a taste of heaven must fortell.
While slippery latkes line the road to hell."

4. From "Latke vs Hamentash: A Materialist-Feminist Analysis," by sociologist Robin Leidner.

"Feminist scholars have demonstrated again and again that gender categories are malleable and that variation within genders is virtually always greater than average differences between genders. The hamentash is a perfect representation of this more flexible, culturally variable, view of gender. For while the hamentash begins as a circle (which Shapiro tags female), it becomes a triangle through conscious human intervention, without ever losing its qualities of circularity.  The hamantash is an inspiring demonstration of the possibilities of overcoming essentialist dualisms: without the circle, there could be no triangle, and without the triangle, the circle  would be empty. The hamantash provides a vision of human possibility that similarly integrates the strengths that have been attributed to men and women. I leave you with the hope that some day we all can achieve that blending of circle and triangle, the synthesis of smoothness and  crunch, the simultaneous embodiment of openness and fullness that we find in the hamantash."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]