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Lauren Kaelin

How Brooklyn Creamery Ample Hills Dreams Up its Colorful Flavors

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Lauren Kaelin

Brooklyn-cased creamery Ample Hills is known for their inventive and delicious flavors of ice cream. Even non-New Yorkers might be familiar with some of their more popular flavors, like The Munchies, Salted Crack Caramel, and more recently, their Star Wars-inspired flavors.

The creamery is going to be at The Village Voice’s upcoming Choice Eats event on March 11, so we called up their art director Lauren Kaelin to find out how Ample Hills comes up with their famously crazy flavors.

“We’re always interested in flavors that tell stories,” Kaelin told ­mental_floss in a phone interview. “We like to experiment, constantly coming up with new flavors, reinventing old flavors.”

In their five years of operation, Ample Hills has churned out about 500 different flavors of ice cream. Inspiration for the flavors can come from many different places—even simple things like the view from outside. Each Ample Hills location has its own signature flavor based on the neighborhood it’s located in. The Gowanus location has a flavor inspired by its infamously sludgy canal (called It Came From Gowanus). The custom creation features dark chocolate with “mysterious elements lurking within the chocolate.” It also has little white chocolate pearls to honor the oysters that used to reside in the canal.

A lot of inspiration also comes from pop culture, like television and movies. Last year, Ample Hills released a flavor called One More For The Road, in honor of the Mad Men series finale. The flavor was an ice cream spin on the Manhattan cocktail. It contained a sweet cream base with Canadian Club whisky (Don Draper’s favorite) and pieces of glazed orange peel for garnish.

More recently, Ample Hills released an X-Files-themed flavor called The Scoop Is Out There. “We called on our fans on social media to name and design a flavor,” Kaelin said. “Then we pulled elements from different ones and created an X-Files flavor.” The paranormal green pistachio ice cream came with chocolate-covered sunflower seeds for Fox Mulder and chocolate microchips for Scully.

Lauren Kaelin

The pints had stickers on them that were inspired by the “I Want To Believe” poster in Mulder’s office. Fun elements like that are considered part of the flavor-making process. In December, Ample Hills celebrated the new Star Wars movie with two new flavors that came in collectible pint containers. They even worked with Lucasfilm to design them.

Aside from television and movies, Ample Hills has also been inspired by politics. Each presidential election cycle, the creamery pays tribute to candidates with a special flavor. Last election, Mitt Romney got a flavor called Mitt Rom Raisin. Obama’s flavor was based off the White House’s microbrewery and honey bee colony, with a sweet cream base, Ommegang Witte beer ice cream, and homemade honeycomb.

“Beer and ice cream go really, really well together,” Kaelin said. Still, sometimes the combinations fall a little flat. Kaelin’s least favorite flavor was an ambitious savory-sweet concoction called Beer Munchies. The flavor was meant to be a more intense, boozy spin on their popular flavor, The Munchies: Pretzel-infused ice cream with assorted junk food like Ritz crackers, potato chips, pretzels, and mini M&Ms.

“We wanted to take that a step further and try to create a Munchies mix-in that actually had the flavor of cheddar cheese.” Kaelin said. The team threw in Cheez-Its, Goldfish, and other cheesy junk foods. They sprinkled it with salt and baked it in butter. Next, they combined that with an apple lambic beer ice cream. “We only made a few tubs of it and it was around for too long. I think we ended up giving it away. Surprisingly enough, there were a few people that were die-hard Beer Munchies fans and to this day, they’ll still ask about it.”

Even when a flavor is retired, it’s not forgotten; often flavors will be re-imagined or repurposed and find new life as another flavor.

For example, Kaelin mentions a flavor called Hundred Acre Woods, which was inspired by Winnie the Pooh. The popular flavor had gummy bears and honeycombs in it to honor the yellow bear and his favorite food. While enjoyed by most, the gummy bears tended to get too hard when frozen, leaving some customers to say they'd prefer the flavor without the candy. In response, Ample Hills released a new flavor called Sweet As Honey, which ditched the bears. “That has been on our menu as a staple now for years,” Kaelin said.

Sweet As Honey will be featured at Choice Eats, along with Salted Crack Caramel and Snap, Mallow, Pop—an ice cream spin on the Rice Krispie Treat. "[Snap, Mallow, Pop] is amazing because it has that gummy consistency that you love about marshmallows because it is just marshmallows."

Looking forward, Kaelin said Ample Hills is experimenting with some more cookie dough flavors. They're also tinkering with a raspberry champagne sorbet.

So with all these flavors, what is Kaelin’s favorite? “Pistachio Squared,” she told us. “It’s pistachio ice cream kind of like how you would imagine it’s supposed to taste.”

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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