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11 Desserts That Changed the World

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1. The Pastries That Cost Santa Anna His Leg

In 1838, a French pastry chef living near Mexico City claimed that Mexican army officers had ransacked his bakery. When his demand for reimbursement was ignored, he appealed to King Louis-Phillipe, who was already irked at Mexico for defaulting on loans from France. The whole thing escalated rather quickly, and retired Mexican general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna came out of retirement to fight for his country’s honor. His ankle was shattered by cannon fire during battle; consequently, most of his leg had to be amputated.

Why it changed the world: Santa Anna’s leg was buried with full military honors and ended up representing his commitment to Mexico, which helped propel him to higher power in Mexico.

2. The Milkshake That Almost Killed Castro

“Death by Milkshake” was just one of the many ridiculous ways the U.S. conspired to assassinate Fidel Castro in the 1960s. Castro was a frequent visitor to a hotel that served specialty milkshakes, and he almost always treated himself to one of the tasty treats when he stopped by. The CIA arranged to have a restaurant worker slip poison pills into his shake during a visit, but the plan was thwarted when the pills, stored in a freezer, disintegrated or burst when the worker tried to access them. Despite the fail whale, it’s said that this attempt was the closest the CIA ever came to actually assassinating Castro.

Why it changed the world: Thanks to this milkshake malfunction, Fidel Castro’s Communist regime was allowed to continue.

3. Marie Antoinette’s Non-Existent “Cake”

Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” comment made the French queen look cruel and heartless, damaging public opinion of her and definitely not making many people very sympathetic to that whole guillotine incident. Even though those famous words are often still attributed to her today, it almost certainly didn’t happen.

Why it changed the world: Had the public not harbored such resentment toward Marie Antoinette, she may have survived the French Revolution instead of being sacrificed to it.

4. That Time Hitler Tried to Kill Churchill with a Chocolate Bar

In 1943, one of MI5’s most senior intelligence chiefs wrote to an illustrator friend asking him to draw an “explosive slab of chocolate.” He wrote, "We have received information that the enemy are using pound slabs of chocolate which are made of steel with a very thin covering of real chocolate. Inside there is high explosive and some form of delay mechanism … When you break off a piece of chocolate at one end in the normal way, instead of it falling away, a piece of canvas is revealed stuck into the middle of the piece which has been broken off and a ticking into the middle of the remainder of the slab.”

The plot was foiled, of course, and Churchill lived to enjoy many pieces of non-lethal chocolate.

Why it changed the world: Had one of MI5’s intelligence officers not uncovered this plot, WWII could have lacked the leadership of Winston Churchill simply because he wanted to satisfy his sweet tooth.

5. JFK's "Lost in Translation" Moment

In 1963, John F. Kennedy went to West Berlin to show U.S. support for West Germany after the Berlin Wall was constructed. In his very famous speech, Kennedy declared that “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'" The oft-repeated legend contends that while Kennedy meant to say “I am a citizen of Berlin,” what he really said was “I am a jelly-filled doughnut,” because citizens of Berlin use the term “Berliner” to refer not to themselves, but to a breakfast pastry injected with preserves. Some linguists suggest that Kennedy wasn’t actually wrong, but others continue to debate the issue, and still the legend persists.

Why it changed the world: For decades after Kennedy’s flub-that-wasn’t-really-a-flub, respected journalists and media outlets have used it as an example of terrible wordsmithing by clueless Americans. Some also use it as an example of how Kennedy endeared himself to Germans, who understood and appreciated the overall sentiment and took his supposed mistranslation as a somewhat adorable flub.

6. How a Pie Inspired One of the World’s Favorite Pastimes

Before the Wham-O company renamed the plastic disc they purchased from inventor Fred Morrison, it was known as a "Flyin' Cake Pan." When Wham-O took over, they christened the toy the "Frisbee" to capitalize on a diversion Yale students had invented where they threw tins from the local Frisbie Pie Co. back and forth.

Why it changed the world: Without the Frisbee, who knows what hobby would be preoccupying disc golfers and golden retrievers everywhere?

7. The Cake That Saved the Future President of Ireland

In 1916, Eamon de Valera found himself incarcerated because of his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, an uprising in which people of Ireland tried to assert their independence from British rule. De Valera managed to make a copy of the hail chaplain's master key by stealing it and making a wax impression using melted-down church candles. He sent the impression to his friends on the outside, who fashioned a metal key and sent it to him, embedded in a cake. Unfortunately, the key didn't function. They tried again, however, and de Valera's second attempt at escape was successful.

Why it changed the world: Eamon de Valera went on to hold many leadership positions in Ireland, including becoming the third President of Ireland from 1959 to 1973.

8. The Way to Abe Lincoln's Heart

Legend has it that Mary Todd called this recipe her “Courting Cake” and made it for Abe many times when they were dating. 

Why it changed the world: Had it not been effective and Abe had married another woman, who knows if he would have been accompanying her to Ford Theater that night, or even if he would have ever run for President?

9. All Chocolate on the Western Front

About a week before Christmas in 1914, Germans soldiers near Armentieres smuggled a “splendid” chocolate cake into the British lines and proposed a brief cease-fire. They then invited their British counterparts to join them for an hour-long concert from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. to celebrate their Captain’s birthday. The delivery and subsequent celebration was one of many holiday halts during WWI, including the famous Christmas Truce.

Why it changed the world: Even if it was for a mere 60 minutes, the shared dessert caused a brief window of time where warring soldiers saw each other as humans instead of enemies.

10. The Cake that Smuggled a Manuscript

In 1934, Jan Petersen wrote a fictionalized version of the violence that killed more than a dozen residents on the streets of Berlin. He called it Our Street: A Chronicle Written in the Heart of Facist Germany, and baked it into two cakes in order to smuggle it out of Germany. As he tried to cross over into Prague under the guise of going on a ski trip, SS guards stopped him and inquired about the strange size of the cakes. "Well, you know what women are, don't you?" Petersen told them. "I told my wife I was only going away for three days, but she would go and bake me two whopping big cakes. It'll take me a week to eat one." The machismo bluff worked, and Petersen was able to get Our Street out of the country.

Why it changed the world: Petersen's daughter believes his account helped the world realize what it was like inside Germany during WWII. "Too many people think the whole German population was in agreement with Hitler, which is not true at all," she said. "Also, so many young people today have no concept of the hardships and bravery shown by many people who were prepared to risk their own lives to prevent the rise of fascism—not just in Germany, but worldwide."

11. Cookie Monster Changes His Stance

For decades, Sesame Street's Cookie Monster devoured dessert at speeds that made competitive eaters wonder what they were doing wrong. Then, after 35 years of happily consuming carbs, the googly-eyed muppet abruptly announced in 2005 that cookies weren't going to be part of his daily diet going forward. "A cookie is a sometime food," he sang, while adults everywhere wondered what happened to their childhoods.

Why it changed the world: It didn't change the world so much as it showed us that the world had changed. It put the problem of childhood obesity at the forefront, and also showed us that even cartoons and puppets needed to model good behavior for kids (looking at you, Wile E. Coyote).

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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