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16 Delicious Facts for National Tortilla Chip Day

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February 24 is National Tortilla Chip Day! Here are some facts and history about the famous triangle-shaped treat.

1. The inventor of tortilla chips was probably Jose Martinez of San Antonio, Texas. According to the book Taco USA, Martinez invented mass-produced masa, which is what tortillas are made out of. He found himself with lots of extra masa, so he decided to cut it up and toast the pieces into chips.

2. But the introduction of tortilla chips into modern food culture is most commonly traced back to Rebecca Webb Carranza. In the late 1940s, she was president of the El Zarpape Tortilla Factory in Los Angeles. She had the idea to fry and serve the misshapen tortillas that the machine sometimes produced, and after her family raved over them at a family party, she sold them to the public for a dime a bag. They caught on, and eventually the company shifted its focus to producing only "Tort Chips," as they came to be called. 

3. In 1994 the “Golden Tortilla” award made its debut. It was created to recognize industry innovators, and Carranza was among its first recipients. Unfortunately, the awards only lasted one more year after that event. 

4. Nachos were invented in 1943 by Ignacio Anaya, a maitre’d from Piedra Negras, Mexico. He found himself in a pinch when a group of guests arrived hungry at his restaurant, and he was without a chef. He went to the kitchen and began cutting up tortillas, which he then topped with cheese and jalapeño peppers. He called the dish Nachos Especiales. Reportedly, "Nacho" was his nickname. 

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5. Doritos became popular in 1961 thanks to the smarts of a man named Archibald Clark West. West, who was VP of marketing at Frito-Lay at the time, discovered the chips while on vacation with his family at Disneyland. The chips were leftovers at a restaurant Frito-Lay was sponsoring called Casa de Fritos, and the chef seasoned them with his own special blend of spices and sold them to the public. The idea didn’t go over well with higher-ups, but West figured out a way to scrape together funding from other Frito-Lay projects in order to create a prototype, which eventually became a hit when Doritos were released to the national market in 1966.

6. Taco Bell made its debut in Downey, California back in 1962, created by a man named Glen Bell whose customers called his tortilla-wrapped products “tay-kos.” There are now over 6300 in existence that all offer various tortilla and nacho combinations and flavors.

7. Tortilla chips are naturally gluten free!

8. Amazon sells 51 different brands of tortilla chips on its site, from Beanitos ($15.59/bag, and actually made of beans) to Santitas. ($2/bag).

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9. The state of Texas made tortilla chips and salsa the state’s official snack in 2003. The idea was proposed by a group of elementary school students who realized that Texas needed a state snack to go alongside the state pepper (jalapeño), the state dish (chili), and the state fruit (grapefruit). The children contacted their state representative with their idea, and the rest is history. 

10. Doritos were the top-ranked tortilla chip brand in the United States in 2015, with over $1.3 billion in sales. Tostitos came in second, with sales at $601 million. But even with those numbers, tortilla and tostada chips are the third best-selling salty snack in the U.S. Crackers and potato chips were first and second, respectively.

11. In 2012, Minneapolis-based group Y.N. RichKids had a viral summer music hit with their song “Hot Cheetos and Takis.” Takis are rolled and fried tortilla chips that come in Guacamole, Fajita, Fuego, Salsa Brava and Nitro flavors.

12. In the animated movie Despicable Me 2 (2013), Gru turned heads with his sombrero made out of tortilla chips. Want a fun edible craft project? If you have an hour, extra flour, and a head-shaped bowl, try making this edible version.

13. Blue Corn (blue corn being a special variety of maize, not traditional corn) tortillas have less starch and 20 percent more protein than white corn tortillas, according to a 2007 study, meaning that their associated chips should be healthier as well (despite the frying process). 

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14. In September 2015, Moe's Southwestern Grill made waves when they promoted their free queso dip day by creating—and smashing—an electric guitar made from a giant tortilla chip.

15. In 2012, UK restaurant chain Brewers Fayre made the Guinness Book of World Records for baking the country’s largest tortilla chip, at 110 pounds and 32 square feet. It took over 50 hours to make, and was baked in a oven that was 10 feet deep.

16. Tortilla chips are Jennifer Aniston's favorite snack, and Kristen Stewart loves tortilla soup so much, she shared her recipe with Vogue.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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May 23, 2017
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