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Pop-Tarts Turn 50

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What do French toast, maple brown sugar oatmeal, and strawberry cheese danish have in common? They’re all popular breakfast foods, but they also share a slightly sweeter distinction: all three have been flavors for Kellogg’s ever-popular Pop-Tarts, the rectangular toaster pastry with the immoveable sprinkles that is marking its 50th birthday this year.

Over the decades, Pop-Tarts have been the source of damage lawsuits, talk show lampoons, and surpassingly weird advertising campaigns, but their popularity continues to grow. Why is a sugar brick with frosting that refuses to melt so appealing? Let’s take a look back.

It all started when the Post cereal company unveiled a breakfast breakthrough called Country Squares late in 1963. The lag time between Post’s announcement of their flat, fruit-filled pastry invention and its attempt to put it on the market allowed rival Kellogg to develop their own version and market it as the Pop-Tart. The original flavors of brown sugar cinnamon, blueberry, strawberry, and apple currant (now defunct) took the market by storm, aided by pure novelty and a perky talking toaster mascot named Milton (who debuted in 1971).

Oddly enough, Kellogg never intended its brainchild to be marketed alongside existing breakfast cereals and products. Grocery store managers starting in 1964 received emphatic instructions stipulating, “IN NO WAY SHOULD THIS PRODUCT BE SOLD AS A SUBSTITUTE FOR CEREAL.”

The Pop-Tart phenomenon grew quietly until the early 1990s, when Thomas Nangle sued the Kellogg company for damages after a tart got stuck and caught fire in his toaster; his case and the sprinkling of lawsuits that followed it inspired the immortal warning that’s still stamped on Pop-Tart boxes today: "Due to possible risk of fire, never leave your toasting appliance or microwave unattended." No kidding. In two independent experiments by humor columnist Dave Barry and Texas A&M professor Patrick R. Michaud, it was discovered that a strawberry Pop-Tart in distress could produce flames over a foot high.

Strawberry filling may have gained notoriety for its flammable properties, but Pop-Tart flavors are startlingly numerous. They range from fruit to nuts to ice cream, and differ depending on the season or country of sale — the Kellogg company also markets the pastries abroad in Canada, Ireland, and the U.K., where flavors have included Strawberry Sensation and Chocotastic. Campy names aren't reserved just for foreign markets, however; American Pop-Tart flavors have included Wild Magic Burst, Guava Mango, French Toast, and Disney Princess Jewelberry (whatever that tastes like—glitter glue, perhaps?). The Pop-Tarts website lists 28 official flavors at present, not including such seasonal favorites as Gingerbread and Choc-o-Lantern Frosted Chocolate Fudge. The three oldest have historically been the most popular.

Somehow, Pop-Tarts have decently weathered the recent debates over advertising and childhood obesity. Kellogg has been forced to remove the phrase “Made with Real Fruit” from the label, but the “Crazy Good” advertising campaign that launched in 2005 has caused sales to balloon in recent years, especially in the market of families with 10-to-12-year-old children. But your hands need not be on the small and sticky side to enjoy ripping open the shining foil packet and popping one in the toaster on a Saturday morning. Nutritionally, we may know better, but pass me a cherry one—here’s to another 50 years, Pop-Tarts.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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