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12 Ice Cream Secrets From Ben & Jerry's

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jacob thomas

As a kid growing up in Waterbury, Vermont, Kirsten Schimoler was a regular on the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour. Now, after getting a food science degree from Cornell University, she’s moved back to her hometown and taken her dream job on Ben & Jerry’s research and development team, where she helps think up, develop, taste, and perfect every flavor that comes out of the company kitchen.

1. THERE’S A REASON BEN & JERRY’S FLAVORS ARE SO RICH

It’s partly because co-founder Ben Cohen has anosmia, or almost no sense of smell. If he couldn’t taste a recipe, he just added more flavoring!

2. THE R&D DEPARTMENT IS ULTRA ELITE

Schimoler is one of just three food scientists on staff. The remaining four members of the team come from culinary backgrounds. (One of them has the title “primal ice cream therapist.”) Together they launch about five flavors each year.

3. A FLAVOR CAN TAKE MORE THAN A YEAR TO DEVELOP

The average development cycle of a basic pint is about 12 to 14 months, but there have been occasions where Schimoler nailed a flavor on the first try. “Other times,” she says, “you’re on iteration 10 and still wondering if it’s going to work.” Which is exactly what happened with Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt, one of the few products where the name came before the flavor. “They knew they wanted to do a Liz Lemon flavor but didn’t know what they wanted it to be. We looked at so many different lemon flavors.” At the other end of the spectrum, Schweddy Balls, inspired by Alec Baldwin’s SNL skit, got to market in a record four months.

4. MOST FLAVORS START WITH THE SAME BASE

A mix of milk, cream, liquid sugar, egg yolks, and water. But there are a couple of variations that have different fat and sugar levels. Choosing which to start with depends on what’s going to be added in. If a recipe calls for something high fat, like peanut butter, it starts with a lower fat base. “If you’re at too high a fat level, once you freeze it, you’re going to end up with concrete; it’s not going to come out of the machine,” Schimoler says. If they’re adding something sweet, like caramel, they use one with lower sugar.

5. EACH YEAR, THE TEAM MAKES A PILGRIMAGE TO A FORWARD-THINKING FOOD CITY

In order to stay ahead of the flavor curve, they’ll spend 12 hours a day tasting offerings from food venues of all types, hitting as many as 10 spots a day. The inspiration for Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt? A blueberry-lavender cocktail in San Francisco. This year, the team visited Portland, and Schimoler is forecasting a future full of caramel and burnt sugar. “We’re also seeing a lot of sour stuff,” she says. “You see that a lot in the cocktail world. Sour beers are coming back.”

6. BEN & JERRY’S RECEIVES ABOUT 13,000 FLAVOR SUGGESTIONS A YEAR FROM CUSTOMERS

Each R&D team member is given a month’s worth of feedback to review for new ideas or recurring themes. Some of the company’s most iconic flavors were born from these, including Cherry Garcia, which was suggested by two Deadheads from Portland, Maine. (In December 2013, after spending more than a decade at the top of the customer favorite list, the 27-year-old flavor was dethroned by Half Baked, which, surprisingly, was not suggested by Deadheads.)

7. NOT EVERY FLAVOR CAN BE FOUND IN YOUR LOCAL GROCERY STORE

Some are created exclusively for a single retailer. One of Schimoler’s favorites, Nutty Caramel Swirl, which she developed to taste like a Snickers bar, is only available at 7-Eleven. The very first flavor she worked on, Berry Voluntary, was made for Target. Walgreens sells a Truffle Trifecta, and Walmart hawks Cotton Candy.

8. THERE’S A FLAVOR GRAVEYARD

At the company’s factory in Waterbury, Vermont, discontinued flavors are laid to rest with a headstone. Among the rows of dearly departed flavors are many of Cohen’s creations, including Miz Jelena’s Sweet Potato Pie (Epitaph: “One potato, two potato, Sweet Potato Pie. No one would could appreciate it. So we had to let it die.”)

See Also: 11 Ben & Jerry's Flavors Inspired by Pop Culture

9. BEING A FLAVOR DEVELOPER HAS CERTAIN PERKS

Ben & Jerry’s has a take-home allowance of three pints—a day! Fortunately, the company’s corporate headquarters, in South Burlington, is equipped with a full gym. They also have a yoga instructor and an occasional massage therapist. (No wonder they also need a nap room.)

10. BACON WON’T HAPPEN

It’s among one of the most requested items, but we won’t see it because Ben & Jerry’s plants are kosher.

11. DON’T WORRY, NEITHER WILL KALE

The company has a long list of regular vendors for things like chocolates and caramel, but there’s an even longer list of snack peddlers hoping to sell their ingredients in a pint of ice cream, including one very persistent proponent of kale chips. Though a co-worker did a test batch, Schimoler says that, ultimately, “No one wants to sit down with a pint of Kale Ben & Jerry’s. So, Kale Guy, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.”

12. BUFFALO WINGS, ON THE OTHER HAND? WELL, THEY JUST MIGHT

“Everyone is so tuned to think that ice cream is sweet, creamy, and cold. But it doesn’t have to be,” Schimoler says. “Creamy and cold can be savory too.”

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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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