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11 Tasty Tidbits for National Ice Cream Month

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In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan decreed that July would be National Ice Cream Month. Here are eleven fun facts to help you celebrate the occasion.

1. Roman Emperor Nero may have been an early fan.

Though his sanity has often been called into question, some sources have claimed that Nero helped spark the evolution of present-day ice cream. The emperor allegedly ordered his slaves to bring ice from nearby mountaintops on hot summer days before mixing it with fruits and honey. If the story is true, this treat was among the first frozen snacks known to history.

2. Martha Washington Used to Serve Ice Cream to her Guests at Mount Vernon.

Prior to the invention of refrigeration, ice cream was a rather expensive dessert. Our nation's first president is rumored to have once spent $700 on the delicacy in New York City over the course of one summer. Sharing her husband's zeal, Martha acquired a “cream machine for ice” in 1784.

3. The First Ice Cream Machine for the home was Invented in the 1840s.

Nancy Johnson of Philadelphia created the hand-cranked device in 1843, revolutionizing the distribution and sale of ice cream throughout the United States and Canada.

4. The Ice Cream Cone was Popularized at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

While metallic and paper cones had been used by ice-cream-eating Europeans for over a century beforehand, Syrian immigrant and waffle salesman Ernest Hamwi has generally been credited with inventing the first edible version at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair when a nearby vendor ran out of serving dishes, and the creation sparked a nationwide sensation. However, while Hamwi most certainly did a great deal to popularize ice cream cones at the aforementioned festival, he's no longer cited as their inventor due to a recent re-analysis which dates them back to 1894.

5. Ice Cream Floats were created when a soda shop owner ran out of regular cream.

Yet another Philadelphian entrepreneur by the name of Robert Green would regularly mix syrup and cream into his carbonated beverages in the last decades of the 1800s. Legend has it that on one fateful day, he ran out of these regular ingredients and used ice cream as a substitute, creating the first ice cream soda in the process. One of the beverage's biggest fans was none other than Will Rogers, who exclaimed after first tasting one, “You will think that you have died and gone to heaven!”

6. Ben and Jerry Originally Began Selling Ice Cream Only Because They Couldn't Afford a Bagel Machine.

You can read the full story here. On a weirder note, in 2008, PETA unsuccessfully urged the company to “do consumers and cows a big favor by making the switch to [human] breast milk.”

7. You can buy Squid Ice Cream in Japan.

Octopus and ox tongue are also among the many weird and wonderful flavors one can enjoy in the land of the rising sun.

8. After the U.S., New Zealand is the world's largest ice-cream-consuming nation.

Kiwis may trail Americans in ice-cream devouring, but they rank above Australians, Danes, and Belgians, all of which crack the global top 10 list.

9. A 2012 study found that the brain of an Ice Cream lover bears a striking resemblance to that of a cocaine addict.

The study—which was launched at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—found that when the brain craves ice cream and other high-fat/high-sugar foods, it reacts in the same way as a cocaine user's does in a period of withdrawal.

10. Long Beach, California consumes more Ice Cream than any other U.S. City.

After an exhaustive survey of regional credit card transactions throughout the nation, researchers found that in 2012, “Long Beachers eat ice cream a whopping 268 percent more than the average American." Fort Worth and Dallas also scored well above average when it comes to devouring ice cream.

11. Ice Cream Truck jingles are a lot more diverse than you might expect.

“I Scream, You Scream” has hardly had a monopoly on the music blared by these beloved vehicles over the years. Other popular jingles include “La Cucaracha,” “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” and Scott Joplin's “The Entertainer.” But not everyone's been amused by this musical repertoire: In 2010, a Wichita, KS resident petitioned the city council to tighten their restrictions on ice cream truck jingle volume: “I'm not anti-ice cream," the resident said. "I just don't think they need to play the music that loud and that often. It's obnoxious.”

[All photos courtesy of Getty Images]

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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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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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