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The Elusive Springtime Plant That’s Worth a Trip to Appalachia

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It’s springtime, which means that in the eastern half of North America, ramps are sprouting on the forest hillsides, particularly in Quebec and Appalachia. But if you live west of the Mississippi River, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of this elusive member of the onion family.

Also known as wild leek, Allium tricoccum is valued for its strong smell and taste—a combination of onions and garlic—as well as its culinary versatility. Both the leaves and the bulb are edible. It kind of looks like a scallion, with green leaves, a small white bulb, and reddish or purple stems, but you’ll know a ramp by its extra-garlicky aroma and its two or three broad, rabbit ear–style leaves. It usually makes its debut in April, after the defrosting of the soil. Because ramps are one of the first veggies to emerge in spring, many consider them a folksy blessing—a sign that winter is officially over and the growing season has begun.

Foodie interest in ramps has blossomed thanks to a surge in foraging chic over the last several years: Chefs from Brooklyn to San Francisco have them shipped across states and sometimes the entire continent, to be roasted, sautéed, grilled, stewed, pickled, deep-fried, stir-fried, pizza-fied, omeletted, and served raw, among other applications. (Mario Batali is a ramp superfan—he posted this cool cooking-in-reverse video about them on his site in 2015.) Their short season—they’re only around for about six weeks per year—only adds to their cachet.

Native Americans were eating ramps, of course, long before hipster foodies got so excited about them, with many tribes using them as a diet staple for centuries. The Dakota and Winnebago tribes not only ate ramps but also treated insect bites and stings with ramp juice, while the Cheyennes poured it in their ears to relieve aches and ringing. By some accounts, even the word Chicago actually comes from the Menomini people’s word for the ramp, shika’ko, which once grew plentifully in the region.

Ramps are picky about where they grow: They need a mix of conditions (shade, cool temperatures, heavy vegetation, bark from deciduous trees, and no standing water) that can best be found in the Appalachian Mountains. They carpet the forest floor for miles between northern Alabama and Georgia and southeastern Canada, but they’re also around—if harder to find—in Maine, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. In Quebec, where ramps are sometimes known as ail des bois (garlic of the woods), the plants are so dear that commercial ramp harvesting is illegal, and there are laws limiting personal harvest. (This has created a booming market for ramp poachers.)

Legend has it that ramps are notoriously hard to cultivate. But committed gardeners can do it, even though the process takes years from seed to full-grown plant. Glen Facemire has found success at it: He and his wife, Norene, run the world’s only ramp farm in the tiny town of Richwood, rural West Virginia, and his life’s work is not only growing ramps but teaching other people to grow them and harvest them correctly. “They are wild ramps,” Glen says of his crop. “We just got them on the different side of the fence now.”

Although Glen says he has been “fooling with ramps” since he was a kid, he and Norene only learned to cultivate and maintain them through trial and error. The Facemires ship both mature ramps as well as seeds and bulbs, particularly to customers in New England, which additionally helps to combat overharvesting of the wild patches.

Glen and Norene serve ramps every year at Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, which is the largest of about a dozen ramp festivals throughout Appalachia. Richwood styles itself as the Ramp Capital of the World, and the festival serves about 2000 pounds of them annually. At this year’s event in late April, the peppery, oniony scent of ramps filled the cafeteria of the local elementary school as crowds filed in to have their trays loaded with fried potatoes, cornbread, ham, soup beans, and a pile of boiled ramps topped with strips of bacon. Mason jars of earthy, spicy sassafras root tea were on hand to wash it all down. In the evening, live musicians performed, including songwriter John Wyatt, whose “Richwood Ramp Song” is always on the set list. At the city hall and firehouse on the other side of town, ramp-themed folk art is sold, among other crafts, and people sell fresh ramps out of their trucks.

Richwooders are such devotees that, at one time, the town had its own Ramp King, a man named Bato Crites, so titled because he reportedly gathered ramps faster than anyone else in town, personally collecting hundreds of pounds each season. A few years ago, the Richwood News Leader even went so far as to add ramp juice to the ink of the newspaper before they printed it, which made for a stinky surprise for its readers—and for the postmaster general, which reprimanded the publishers.

Several other communities throughout the Appalachians hold yearly ramp festivals in the springtime, although they’re mostly in West Virginia, where, according to Joey Aloi of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, there are “more towns than people, and more festivals than towns.” At Stinkfest in Huntington, West Virginia, you can get ramp pesto and ramp cheddar biscuits, and at the Ramps and Rail Festival in Elkins, there’s ramp burgers, ramp chili, and ramperoni rolls—a take on the classic West Virginia pepperoni roll.

If you’re outside of ramp country, and you want to try ramps without traveling to Appalachia, you’re in luck—a number of grocers in the U.S. have them shipped in during their short season, which usually lasts through May. Farmers markets are your best bet, and select Whole Foods occasionally carry them too. But prepare to be gouged: While local ramps in West Virginia sell for about $5 a pound, they’re going for $25 a pound at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and they command upwards of $30 in spots in New York City. You can also pay $149 to have a 5-pound box shipped anywhere in the U.S. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious (and patient), you can order some seeds or bulbs from the Facemires in Richwood and try your luck in your own garden.

Just be forewarned about the smell, which—love it or hate it—will seep out of your pores for a few days afterward. As Grubstreet’s Hugh Merwin described it, “By comparison, the odor of ramps makes garlic smell like Chanel No. 5.”

All photos by Meg van Huygen except where noted.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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