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11 Things You Didn't Know About Chip Engineering

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Surprisingly elegant engineering and rigorous testing goes into the production of chips. Not the micro kind that are running your computer but the potato, corn, and tortilla kind whose crumbs are all over your keyboard. Here are 11 things you might not know about America's favorite snack.

1. Supercomputers keep your Pringles pristine.

You're probably wondering about the double-curved shape of a Pringles chip, and what its technical mathematical name is. Wonder no longer. Your average, unsullied Pringle is a hyperbolic paraboloid; its equation is (x^2)/(a^2) - (y^2)/(b^2) = z/c. Here's where things get interesting, though (as if hyperbolic paraboloids weren't interesting enough). Proctor & Gamble doesn't just shove a bunch of Pringles in a can and call it a day. Rather, they use supercomputers to keep conditions just right to make sure the chips make it from their factory to your house unmolested.

2. The FDA took issue with Pringles being called "chips."

So Pringles' competitors were none to happy with their new canister-borne competition, and went to the Food and Drug Administration with a complaint. Pringles, they argued, aren't technically "chips" of anything; they're freakish mathematical abominations! (I'm paraphrasing.) The FDA concurred, and mandated that if Pringles wanted to use the c-word, they were to refer to themselves as "potato chips made from dried potatoes."

3. The Doritos Locos taco required the reinvention of the chip.

So it's 3 a.m. and you've been reading the Bible and now you've got the munchies bad, man, and, like, dude, Taco Bell! You're probably going to order a Doritos Locos taco. I say "probably" because since their introduction, 450 million such tacos have been sold. Now you're probably thinking, well yeah, what an obvious idea. Sprinkle Doritos dust on a taco shell and you're in business.

Not so fast. Engineering the Doritos Locos required Taco Bell to basically reinvent the taco. Really. Chip engineers encountered three nearly insurmountable problems while pursuing their tasty new idea. First, unflavored taco shells and unflavored Doritos chips taste nothing alike. So when the seasoning was first applied to the taco shells, everyone realized that they were actually pretty gross. Scientists were thus forced to reconsider the taco shell formula. (Taco shells have a formula.)

What's more, you can't apply the Doritos seasoning to a taco shell the same way you do for a Doritos tortilla. Your average Dorito is a triangle (here I am excluding their extreme 3-D varieties). Your average taco shell is round and curved. Whereas the tumbling process for one will naturally apply zesty seasonings very evenly, the same process for a taco will result in a half-bland shell with a chewed-bubble-gum-sized glob of seasoning on one end. Not cool. (Though possibly cool ranch.) So the process had to be reconsidered. Which led to the third major problem.

See, when you get a bag of Doritos, you've got mostly big, crunchy chips, but you also have a lot of broken ones down at the bottom that you end up funneling into your mouth during that last satisfying go at the bag before feeling awful about your terrible diet and how it's affecting your health and relationships. (Or maybe that's just me.) The point is the tumbling barrels used to apply the seasoning to Doritos don't have to be good; they just have to be good enough. But that doesn't work for taco shells. Every taco shell must maintain its structural integrity from A to Z; from manufacturing, tumbling (the seasoning is basically applied in machines like giant clothes dryers), shipping to Taco Bells, taco assembly, insertion in the bag, and finally, to your kitchen table, or on the floor next to your Xbox controller and bottle of whiskey.

So Taco Bell had to reinvent everything, and seasonings are applied evenly to the new, re-engineered, chemically compatible tacos in what amounts to a sealed nacho cheese gas chamber.

4. It's not sunlight that makes Sun Chips so delectable.

Actually, to get just the right amount of zest, Sun Chips use something with a little more kick than mere sunlight. They use pork enzymes. For flavor. 

5. Doritos were invented at Disneyland

At Casa de Fritos in Disneyland (I swear I'm not making any of this up), extra tortillas were cut up, lightly fried, seasoned, and served. The resulting snack was popular. When a Frito-Lay executive discovered the goodie, he quickly had the papers drawn up and soon brought to the general public this Disney-born triangular gateway to heaven.

(Want a bonus bit of Disney trivia completely unrelated to chips? Richard Nixon's infamous "I am not a crook" press conference was held on November 17, 1973 at Walt Disney World.)

6. Sun Chips earned the ire of America for being too noisy.

Nobody complains about the pork enzymes, but everybody hated the biodegradable packaging first used by Sun Chips in 2010. The problem was that, to hell with the environment, the bags were just too damn noisy. They were eventually redesigned and replaced. (The bags. Not the Americans.)

7. Ketchup flavored chips are a thing.

I first encountered ketchup-flavored chips in Afghanistan, where they were imported from United Arab Emirates. Apparently I've been living in a box, because they're reportedly also very popular in Canada, which is reason enough, if you ask me, to send in John Candy and Rhea Perlman

8. Fritos and Cheetos are brothers

When he invented Fritos, you would think Elmer Doolin would have been satisfied with achieving immortality. But he was just getting started. Years later, he went on to invent Cheetos.

9. The word "Funyuns" was the silver medal.

After inventing a new onion-flavored snack, Frito-Lay wanted to call them OnYums. Alas, that Oscar Wilde-like play on words was already taken. Jim Albright, a professor at University of North Texas, came up with the next best thing: "Funyuns." 

10. Technically, “nachos” needs an apostrophe.

It's weird to think that nachos even needed to be invented. Chips, cheese, jalapeños—there was a time when people had no idea that such ingredients could be combined, let alone form the core of the single greatest culinary endeavor since the doughnut. In 1943, the head waiter at a border town restaurant in Mexico found himself having to improvise a dish for a group of Army wives who showed up after closing. Using the few remaining ingredients in the kitchen, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya served up "Nacho's special."

11. Space aliens might know what Doritos are.

In 2008, as part of some inexplicable marketing effort, Frito-Lay targeted a 30-second commercial at a potentially inhabited solar system 42 light years away. When the aliens finally come and destroy us, it's because we deserve it.

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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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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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