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Movie Clips, Youtube

A History of the Food Court

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Movie Clips, Youtube

Fast Times At Ridgemont High did more than just guarantee the word awesome entered our permanent collective lexicon. The mall food court in the movie, shot in the Sherman Oaks Galleria in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, represented the '80s teen ideal of community, freedom, and independence. In the days before Wi-Fi or Snapchat, social networking was done in person, at the mall, with an Orange Julius or a Hot Dog On A Stick in hand.

Sharing a meal in a communal space is nothing new—the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which is well over 500 years old, is one of the world’s oldest indoor markets. Fast-forward to the early 1900s, and the great department stores that presided over downtown shopping streets in the United States had a variety of full-service restaurants aimed squarely toward the ladies-who-lunch. Marshall Field's on Chicago's State Street was home to the famous Walnut Room (which now resides in a Macy's). Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had a spacious dining room, believed to be the largest in the city, that provided diners a place not just to eat but also to enjoy the store’s enormous pipe organ. Macy’s Herald Square in New York City offered white tablecloth meals. But at some point, meals for the masses became a selling point.

“FLIGHT TO THE SUBURBS”

When shoppers moved from the urban centers to the suburbs in the post-World War II boom, the retailers followed. By 1954, when Time published an article called "Flight To The Suburbs," 93 suburban shopping malls had been built around the country’s 20 largest cities and another 25 were on the way. The enclosed suburban mall had to build the retail experience from the ground up since it didn't have the benefit of the existing businesses or infrastructure of the downtown shops. These malls included restaurants—some in the department stores were similar to their urban counterparts, while others offered choices like a Morrison’s cafeteria, or the food counter at the Woolworth’s Five and Dime. The restaurants were more of a convenience to suddenly hungry shoppers rather than their own destination. Woolworth’s counter in particular was an early quick-service concept, in today’s restaurant industry parlance, but it does point toward the food courts that were yet to come.

BIRTH OF THE FOOD COURT

While there is some debate about where the first successful food court opened in a mall (some claim it was in Canada at Toronto’s Sherway Gardens; others say it is the Paramus Park Mall in Paramus, New Jersey), there is little doubt about the visionary behind the idea: James W. Rouse. Rouse was the pioneering developer responsible not only for many suburban shopping centers (he's credited with coining the term "shopping mall" in the 1950s), but also urban shopping renewal projects like renewing Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall in 1976 or New York City’s South Street Seaport in 1983.

“Jim Rouse wanted to create what he saw as community picnics,” Robert Rubenkonig, Rouse’s communications director, told Shopping Centers Today in 2004. Rouse’s philosophy for all of his work—malls, urban projects, even the entire town of Columbia, Maryland—was based in this idea of community. He recognized that malls were the town centers of suburban sprawl: a gathering spot where people could linger, not just a shopping or dining destination. And, obviously, there is a real economic benefit to people with cash to spare lingering about—MarketWatch has noted that shoppers spend almost 20 percent more at a mall with a “good food court.”

THE AWESOME '80S

The children of the suburban boom became adults and had children of their own. Those children of the 1970s and 1980s grew up in and around the suburban malls. It was never just a shopping opportunity; it was the cultural experience that Rouse had envisioned. The mall and its food court gave the suburbs a "civic anchor," as Smithsonian magazine put it, and a handful of restaurants quickly emerged as favorites.

One vendor that immediately became a food court staple was Orange Julius, that mysterious, frothy concoction of orange juice and “a few choice ingredients." Along the west coast, the Hot Dog On A Stick franchise served corn dogs and fresh squeezed lemonade, though its true appeal was the circus striped mini-dresses and hats worn by its predominantly female staff. The food courts of the '80s also had their fair share of restaurants with roots in the ethnic immigrant communities, even if the food itself bore little resemblance to its old country ancestors. Sbarro pizza, Panda Express and its famous orange chicken, and a Greek gyro restaurant or two were common food fodder in suburbia.

Other, more specialized, food trends peaked in the '80s as well. There was the boom of cookie stores, complete with giant cookie cakes from the likes of Mrs. Fields and Great American Cookie Company, and 1-Potato-2 offered baked potatoes with a hundred varieties of toppings beyond sour cream or cheese.

CHANGING TIMES AND EXPANSION

The success and popularity of food courts began attracting developers of other types of commercial buildings. Beginning in the '90s, colleges and universities started to convert some of their traditional dining halls from cafeteria style to the now-familiar food court design, even bringing in brand name franchises like Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway. Hospitals followed suit in an attempt to combat the old stereotype of bland and tasteless hospital food. Airports began renovating their snack bars and clustering restaurants together food court style. Sbarro, one of those mall stalwarts, began appearing in terminals across the country.

Meanwhile, those original food courts were starting to show their age. The pink and turquoise Miami Vice-era design stood in stark contrast to the ubiquitous '90s grunge. Malls began to modernize by adding more casual sit-down restaurants as tenants, which continued to attract adults rather than just teens needing to kill time; one of southern California’s classic malls, the Beverly Center, was featured in the 1991 Woody Allen and Bette Midler movie Scenes From A Mall, which centered around a middle-aged couple who had a nice, loud argument over ice cream in the food court. Chains like the Cheesecake Factory and The Melting Pot opened locations in shopping malls. To increase its presence, California Pizza Kitchen expanded beyond its home-base in southern California, often setting up shop on the outer perimeter of a mall. This allowed for late-night access and liquor license zoning.

The Mall of America (MOA) in Minneapolis opened its doors in the summer of 1992 to great fanfare. Touted as the largest mall in the world, it was divided into four courts, each with its own dining areas. For many people, the MOA represented the best—and worst—of the suburban shopping mall taken to its ultimate extreme. The sheer size and scale of the mall was unprecedented, as were the entertainment options; the center of the mall featured both an amusement park and an aquarium.

In many ways, though MOA was a far bigger immediate success than anticipated, its completion also marked the beginning of a shift in mall culture. Shoppers started to turn away from the mega malls and their food courts. People were looking for the more intimate "civic anchor" of Rouse’s vision—not just a full-blown consumer experience. The appeal of food court culture was still there, but those options began to exist outside of the climate-controlled mall.

HOLDING COURT OUTSIDE

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Now that shoppers spend more time and money online, malls have been struggling to attract guests. But the food court mindset is thriving with new concepts that harken back to the ancient bazaars and European food halls. In New York and Chicago, celebrity chef Mario Batali has opened outlets of Eataly, his food hall design that is part specialty store and part dining experience. There is artisan pizza and even a Nutella bar for desserts and crepes. In the basement of New York City's Plaza Hotel, another celebrity chef, Boston’s Todd English, has pioneered a food hall with gourmet desserts, classic hoagies, and lobster rolls. The Zipper, a new addition in Portland, has been called a “food court for grown-ups.” At all three, visitors are encouraged to linger—that time-honored tradition recognized by Rouse and the other community developers.

Food truck rodeos—where multiple food trucks gather in the same location, often around communal seating—are happening all over. And urban developments offering a variety of local and small-batch products have popped up in cities from San Francisco to Austin. In Los Angeles, plans are underway for its own massive outdoor pop-up food court. SteelCraft, a permanent food lot to be built out of metal shipping containers, is set to open in Long Beach this month reports L.A. Weekly, and will have tenants such as the local Smog City brewery and specialized vendors of ramen, waffles, and coffee. Even the aging Mall of America is spending money on a new food court, complete with a name to keep up with the times: Culinary on North.

James W. Rouse wanted a “community picnic,” and that concept is written all over Eataly’s manifesto “Good food brings all of us together and helps us find a common point of view.” It’s just proof that the food court isn’t going anywhere, even if current trends dictate that food be artisan and locally sourced rather than deep fried and on a stick.

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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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© Nintendo
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Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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