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9 Useful, Good Housekeeping-Approved Cooking Tricks from the 1920s

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Most of the clever cookery timesavers women used a century ago don’t translate to today. The idea of serving breakfast cornflakes from a glass pitcher instead of the usual way (which was apparently with a teaspoon) is nifty, but has been completely unnecessary since Kellogg’s got the idea of making their cereal boxes narrow and tall for pouring instead of squat and square for dipping. But there are tiny corners of our kitchens where we still do things very much like our great grandmothers did. Here are some ways, suggested by readers of the era, tested by the Good Housekeeping Institute, and published in Good Housekeeping's Book of Recipes and Household Discoveries: Every Recipe Actually Tested and Approved by The Good House Keeping Institute, to do those things even better.

1. Keep Fish Firm and Flat!

When baking fish, a reader from Massachusetts always places “several strips of clean white cloth wrung out in cold water and extending a little beyond the fish.” (This publication predates the mass marketing of aluminum foil for home use by a few years, although cloth might still work better.) This way, when the fish is done it can be lifted from the pan without breaking to bits.

2. Under-Ripe Muskmelon?

Muskmelon was and is vernacular for many different melons and even cucumbers, depending on which part of the country you were in and when. In this case, the writers were likely referring to cantaloupe. And what’s worse than cutting into your cantaloupe and finding it too green? Don’t throw it to the pig slop just yet! The magazine advises the reader to cut it in half and to each half add “one-half tablespoonful of butter and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Bake as if it were a small squash, and you will find that it tastes somewhat like one. Or you can cut the melon into thin slices, dip them in batter, and fry like eggplant.”

3. Fancy Pants Poaching.

Americans seldom eat carefully poached eggs served in pretty little egg cups anymore, but once upon a time they were a delicate and delicious part of breakfast. Poaching it so that the white was solid but the yolk soft was tricky. After trying years to poach her eggs “the restaurant way,” one lady discovered the trick was to “put a teaspoonful of vinegar in the water and cover the pan. The vinegar keeps the white of the egg from spreading, and the covered pan makes the white cook over the yolk.”

4. Ripening Roundly.

To keep fruit and vegetables from prematurely going brown while ripening, one reader put her produce on a wire cake rest. This way, “the air completely surrounds the fruit or vegetables, and there is no trouble of turning them over, and no bruises resulting from the pressure of a peach or tomato on a hard, flat surface. “

5. Classy Cakes!

One mother made a Pinterest-worthy project out of her daughter’s birthday cake, by using melted chocolate as paint and a hard boiled white frosting as canvas. Using a water-color brush, “I made a border of small objects in silhouette—cats, birds, etc.—around the sides of the cake.” She topped the cake with tiny candles and her daughter’s name painted in chocolate. 

6. Cup o’ Salad!

In the 1920s, it was becoming more and more common for people to be taking picnic lunches along as they traveled “by machine.” Sometimes this necessitated eating in car seats or other places where a full place-setting was unmanageable. So one reader from Washington DC suggests the use of “individual paper drinking cups” for serving a salad.  She commends the ability to hand out individual portions without mess, and even suggests the salad be “garnished attractively with a sprig of parsley stuck in one side.”

7. Shortcut for shortening!

Scraping the proper amount of shortening into a measuring cup is just as tedious now as it was then, but one lady had an ingenious solution for getting the right amount. “When one-half cup of shortening is called for, I fill the measuring cup one-half full of water, then drop in shortening until the water comes to the top. Drain this off, and one-half cup of shortening remains.”

8. Two Ingredient Maple Frosting.

It’s so simple it would never occur to most of us. One woman found a quick way to frost hearty cakes: Just add maple syrup to powdered sugar until it’s spreadable. 

9. Bacon Makes it Better.

One reader writes to tell Good Housekeeping that her family much prefers baked macaroni and cheese if raw bacon is first layered on top of the casserole before going into the over. We’ll file that one under “Blameless ignorance of a more innocent time.” Or just, “Bacon. Duh.”

BONUS: Combine Peanut Butter and Rice!

It was a fresh strange combination in the 1920s, and it seems to be a fresh strange combination now. We’re instructed to “Boil one-half cupful of rice until tender, in boiling, salted water. Pour over it one pint of thin white sauce, to which one-half cupful of peanut butter has been added.” The Washington reader who submits this idea is sure that you will find this “a tasty combination.”

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]