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Library of Congress

5 Foods Thomas Jefferson Introduced or Made Popular in America

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Library of Congress

If you haven’t taken a moment to appreciate Thomas Jefferson yet—his birthday is today!—you should. I mean, yes, he did a lot of great things for our country, including giving us the Declaration of Independence, launching the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and making the Louisiana Purchase. But if you’re a fan of mac and cheese, ice cream, or french fries, you should really be grateful: Apparently a great lover of carbs, Jefferson introduced all of these delicious treats to America.

1. Ice Cream

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Despite a long-standing rumor, Thomas Jefferson did not invent ice cream. Not even close—in one form or another, it’s been around since at least 200 BC, when people ate a milk and rice mixture that had been frozen in the snow.

But if you’re American and you love a bowl of mint chocolate chip or a waffle cone stuffed with Rocky Road, you probably do have Jefferson to thank: His obsession with the tasty treat is what made it popular in the United States.

It’s believed that Jefferson first encountered ice cream during his stint in France from 1784 to 1789. When he returned home, he brought recipes and an ice cream freezer to ensure he could enjoy the stuff for the rest of his life.

As president, he served ice cream at formal dinners on at least six occasions. Guests were delighted and somewhat baffled by the delicacy. In 1802, a Congressman from Massachusetts wrote, “Ice cream very good, crust wholly dried, crumbled into thin flakes.” Representative Samuel Latham Mitchill described “balls of frozen material inclosed [sic] in covers of warm pastry, exhibiting a curious contrast, as if the ice had just been taken from the oven.”

Jefferson’s handwritten ice cream recipe resides at the Library of Congress these days, but you don’t have to go to D.C. to get the details—they’re right here.

2. Macaroni and Cheese

Though he probably wasn’t the first person to introduce Americans to the ooey gooey goodness of macaroni drenched with cheese, Jefferson did have a hand in popularizing it. As with ice cream, he discovered the dish while living in France and became so enamored with it that he sketched a “maccaroni” machine. He first served the delicacy at a state dinner in 1802—and back in those days, anything served at the White House became the talk of the town. People were soon clamoring for the dish, though what they ate probably didn’t much resemble today’s good ol’ Kraft.

3. French Fries

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Thomas Jefferson also brought back a French recipe for “pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches (potatoes deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings).” Despite Jefferson’s enthusiasm about the fried spuds, which he cut in rounds, not sticks, they didn’t really take off in popularity until the 1900s. Nevertheless, we can thank him for the idea—his handwritten recipe predates cookbook French fry recipes by half a century.

4. Champagne

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After sampling some of France’s finest champagne, TJ insisted on serving the beverage at most formal dinners he hosted. He was such an avid fan, in fact, that he kept a corkscrew in the same carrying case as his toothbrush. But Jefferson didn’t like the effervescent delight that we do today; he preferred his champagne flat, feeling that sparkling variety was just a silly fad.

5. Parmesan Cheese

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Somewhat related to Jefferson’s love of macaroni and cheese is his love of Parmesan. Though he wanted to replicate the production process in America, Jefferson ultimately decided it was impossible to recreate the flavors in the cheese since it was made from the milk of Italian cows. Instead, he had many wheels imported for his own personal use—he was especially fond of sprinkling the cheese over the top of his “macaroni pie” to finish it off.

Jefferson was also extremely interested in a steam-powered grater, capable of shredding a chunk of Parmesan in minutes. Between that, the macaroni machine, and the ice cream freezer, it’s safe to say Jefferson was probably the first kitchen gadget enthusiast in America.

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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