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Joshua Scott

A Day in the Life of a Pizza Guru

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Joshua Scott

This story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Two minutes into a conversation with Scott Wiener you can tell the man is obsessed. The 32-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn, loves pizza like nobody else. He loves it so much he’s made a career and a life out of it: He’s the author of the definitive book on pizza box design, holds the Guinness World Record for largest pizza box collection (775 and counting), writes for Pizza Today magazine, judges pizza competitions, and founded the only tour in the country—maybe the world—solely dedicated not to pizzerias but to “pizza itself,” he says of the aptly named Scott’s Pizza Tours.

When Wiener was growing up, it had been a joke among his friends that he was “that into pizza,” he says. But he never considered it a career path: He worked in TV and music and spent some time as a caretaker living on the only surviving Ellis Island ferryboat. Then, in 2007, for his 26th birthday party, he went all out: He rented a bus, put together pizza-related goodie bags, and invited a group of friends to join him on a pizza-eating tour of New York City. It was a day that would change his life.

Six months later, he’d taken his pizza-party concept and made it his profession, offering bus and walking tours in New York to paying customers. Around that same time, he traveled to Israel, where he noticed “some stunning pizza box specimens.” Collecting them, too, became an obsession.

It’s hard not to look at a self-made pizza expert without a sense of awe. Hungry to find out if his daily life is as delicious as it sounds, we tagged along with Wiener on a busy day over the summer, through a Skyped meeting for his pizza-box art show in London and Berlin, a walking pizza tour in Greenwich Village, a meeting with a Japanese online magazine (pizza is having a moment in Japan), a comedy show that Scott’s Pizza Tours sponsored, and other random pizza business that came up. Here’s what we saw. 

Joshua Scott

9:01 a.m. Most mornings, Scott starts out with a swim at the YMCA, followed by a bowl of oatmeal to prepare for a day of pizza eating. (He limits himself to 15 slices weekly, which he tracks with an app.) Settling into his office full of pizza boxes, he fires off a few emails. As his Skype call begins, Scott remembers it’s his mom’s birthday. He jumps up to call her quickly, telling her, “You’re the most important one!”

Joshua Scott

9:43 a.m. It’s no surprise that the majority of Scott’s frozen foods fit a certain theme: People are always sending him pizza. There’s also some brisket his mom made. He digs through the foil-wrapped items to show us a pizza he made in January 2013. (Shortly after our visit, he threw it out “to make room for more frozen pizza.”)

Joshua Scott

10:30 a.m. People just “give me pizza things,” says Scott. This pizza umbrella was made by a friend and has pizzeria locations noted—with tiny plastic pizzas—on a map of downtown Manhattan that can be read from the inside, in case of a rainy-day pizza-mergency.

Joshua Scott

11:50 a.m. Before our Greenwich Village tour begins, a man walks by eating pizza. “That’s the second person I’ve seen eating a slice!” exclaims Scott, who’s changed into his official tour attire. There are nine of us, including two couples from New Jersey and a woman from Korea. Tours vary widely; whoever is there defines the day, says Scott. There have even been marriage proposals and one wedding, which he officiated.

Joshua Scott

12:07 p.m. Being buddies with pizzeria owners all over town means Scott gets to play chef every now and then. At Keste, a Neapolitan pizzeria with a dome-shaped wood-burning brick oven heated as hot as 930 degrees, Scott encourages us to touch the dough. “Dough is alive, and pizza is all about how hands interact with the dough,” he tells us as we ooh and ahh over its softness. He shovels it into the oven; within seconds, a focaccia emerges.

Joshua Scott

12:55 p.m. “I move fast in the morning,” Scott explained earlier. He also moves fast in the afternoon. There’s a lot to cover where pizza is concerned, so he walks and talks, dropping facts. Here’s one: When pizza chefs practice making pizza, they often use rigatoni (yes, the pasta) instead of cheese—it’s cheaper than fresh mozzarella and weighs about the same. Here’s another: A pizza oven can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.

Joshua Scott

1:06 p.m. At a break between pizzerias, Scott pulls out a binder and gives us a mini lesson on grains. Wheat sourcing impacts flour options, and historically, pizzerias have had to depend on local flour. Some flours are much finer than others; “00” flour is the finest grain you can get and what’s used in Neapolitan pizzas (which is why the dough is so soft). Generally, the coarser the grain, the more time the pizza will need in the oven.

Joshua Scott

1:28 p.m. Scott’s infrared thermometer comes from an online tool shop and is typically used to check heating and air conditioning. He pulls it out on tours to demonstrate oven and pizza surface temperatures and “to avoid pizza burn,” which happens when slices are more than 175 degrees. When he checks a few seconds later, the temperature reads 168, and “this pizza is open for business.”

Joshua Scott

1:32 p.m. Among Scott’s many pizza hacks is a tip for divvying up a just- baked pie: Just insert a fork between the sliced sections at the crust and twist to separate. (For more hacks, visit mentalfloss.com/pizzahacks.) He shows us this at Fiore’s, where a gas deck oven is used, meaning a longer bake time. Quickly, we eat. As Scott says, “If there’s one thing I respect in the world, it’s the sanctity of fresh pizza.”

Joshua Scott

4:40 p.m. The tour completed, we hit Staples, where Scott cuts Slice Out Hunger fliers to pass out at the comedy show. The Slice Out Hunger annual pizza-eating event began six years ago as an anniversary party for Scott’s Pizza Tours. Each slice is $1, and all proceeds go to Food Bank for New York City. Last year, $20,000 was raised, funding 100,000 meals for the needy.

Joshua Scott

7:25 p.m. At the comedy show, talk again turns, of course, to pizza. Earlier in the day, I’d asked Scott if he ever got annoyed being asked so many questions about pizza. “That’s what I’m there for,” he said. “If my 12-year-old self thought I would grow up to think ‘What’s your favorite pizza?’ is the worst question, well, that’s still the best.”

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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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