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5 Deliciously Illegal Food Crimes

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Last night, thieves in Scotland stole a trailer full of nearly 10 tons of Kellogg's breakfast cereal bars worth £45,000. The heist, according to Detective Constable Martin Lumsden, "obviously involved an element of planning. We are reviewing CCTV footage and want to hear from anyone who may have been in or around the area of the lorry park around the time of this theft, or indeed the hours and days prior to the theft as those responsible may have been in area carrying out some form of reconnaissance and planning."

Breakfast bars aren't the only tasty treats to fall victim to theft. Here are five other foods that thieves have targeted.

1. NUTELLA

In April 2013, thieves in Germany snatched 5 metric tons of Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread—estimated worth: $20,710—from a trailer parked in Bad Hersfeld. Reportedly, a load of energy drinks was also stolen from that location.

2. MAPLE SYRUP

Aunt Jemima would be horrified: In 2012, police in Quebec made three arrests in the theft of 6 million pounds of syrup from Canada’s strategic maple syrup reserve. The thieves rented a separate portion of the reserve’s Saint-Louis-de-Blandford warehouse, which contained 16,000 barrels, for an unrelated business—and when no one was around, they siphoned syrup from those barrels. They even filled some of the 54-gallon barrels with water to disguise their crime, which was eventually discovered during one of the facility’s biannual inspections.

The thieves sold the syrup themselves from a shop in nearby New Brunswick and shipped it to buyers in Ontario, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Approximately two-thirds of the stolen syrup has been located, and authorities are trying to seize it—but even if they don’t, the owners of the pilfered product won’t lose: The syrup is insured.

3. CHEESE

Research has shown that cheese is the most stolen food in the world. Even so, it’s weird to read the words “international cheese smuggling network.” But that’s exactly what three people (one current and one former Canadian police officer and an American accomplice) were busted for in 2012. They were charged with buying brick cheese—which is commonly used for pizza toppings—in the United States and transporting it to Canada hidden in their vehicles. Because cheese in the U.S. costs one-third of what it does in Canada, drivers were able to make $1000 to $2000 a trip, for a total profit of $165,000.

4. GARLIC

In January, Sweden issued arrest warrants for Brits suspected of illegally importing Chinese garlic into the European Union between 2009 and 2010. The EU has a 9.6 percent duty and an additional $1600 per tonne on imported garlic; to get around the tax, which would have amounted to more than $13 million, the criminals shipped their stinky loot to Norway by boat, where it entered duty-free, then drove it into Sweden on trucks. It’s not the first time this has happened, either: There were two garlic smuggling busts in the UK in 2012.

5. MUENSTER CHEESE

In March 2013, an Illinois man was busted in New Jersey driving an 18-wheeler loaded with 42,000 pounds of pilfered Muenster cheese worth an estimated $200,000. The 34-year-old reportedly provided false paperwork to K&K Cheese in Cashton, Wisc., to get his hands on the cheese, and planned to sell the loot well under market value to retailers along the east coast. If the cheese is deemed safe after inspection, it will be donated to charity.

This piece originally ran in 2013.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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