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Scott Gordon Bleicher

How Jordyn Lexton is Making Grilled Cheese Give Back

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Scott Gordon Bleicher

By Jordyn Lexton, as told to Michelle Goodman

Jordyn Lexton parlayed her culinary passion and a desire to help troubled youth into Snowday Food Truck, a business with a mission as impressive as the inventive grilled cheeses it serves up. In 2015, Snowday won the Vendy Cup for best New York City food truck. We asked the 29-year-old native New Yorker how she made the leap from teaching incarcerated teenagers English to running a hip start-up that specializes in second chances.

I was a high school English teacher on Rikers Island for three years. New York treats 16-year-olds in the criminal justice system like they’re adults, regardless of the offense. They’re offered education until the age of 21, so I worked with probably 1300 young people. Most of them haven’t been sentenced yet—they’re just being detained because they can’t afford bail. I saw how destructive the system is to young people, and I was interested in developing an employment strategy for [those] coming home.

Many of my happiest moments have centered around food. It’s a way to connect. There was a culinary arts class on Rikers where a lot of my students were excelling, so I decided a mobile food source where we could be out in the community would be a great way to raise awareness about injustice inside the system.

I hadn’t worked in the food industry or in “re-entry”—when a prisoner returns to society. So in 2012, I left my teaching job and pursued both. I worked on the Kimchi Taco Truck in New York City for seven months, then in re-entry programs. In 2013, I got some great people to rally around me, and we raised money. In the spring of 2014, we launched Snowday.

I was inspired by a foundation in Peru called Niños that I’d visited in 2011. It provides two meals to more than 600 children in Cusco every single day, and generates revenue through a for-profit hotel and hostel it operates. Drive Change, the nonprofit I started that owns Snowday, runs a 12-month fellowship for young people coming home from jail. They work in our kitchen and on our truck, and the revenue from the truck cycles back into the organization to subsidize our costs.

About 20 people per year work on our one truck. We pay our workers $11 an hour and teach them transferable skills through classes like marketing, money management, hospitality, and culinary arts. We also incorporate disciplines like communication skills and community building. We’ve had a lot of people move on to other full-time opportunities, but we’re not a job placement organization. Rather, a big part of the work we do is empowering the youth to take the initiative to secure their next position. We help build their skill sets, but for somebody to excel in future environments they need that foundation within themselves.

Next, we’re going to build a garage and commissary for other food trucks. The trucks’ owners will pay rent and purchase additional goods and services they need—like ice and propane, getting their truck cleaned, renting the kitchen space. But they will be required to hire people out of Drive Change. We’ll be able to work with more people hired by more food trucks.

The goal for us is to help young people coming home get into a position where, rather than all the stop signs and dead ends they generally face, they see futures with new opportunities.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]