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9 Things You Might Not Know About Peet's Coffee

Coffee guru Alfred Peet opened his first coffee bean shop in Berkeley, California just over 50 years ago, effectively launching a caffeine-fueled revolution. Considered the grandfather of the American gourmet coffee movement, his eponymous coffee shops are now found across the country.

1. FOUNDER ALFRED PEET WAS INVOLVED IN THE TEA AND COFFEE BUSINESS SINCE HIS CHILDHOOD.

Born in the Netherlands in 1920, Peet grew up assisting his father at the family's small coffee roastery. In his teens, he worked in London as an apprentice at a coffee and tea company, and he later traveled to Indonesia as a tea taster in the early 1950s.

2. PEET WAS AGHAST AT WHAT AMERICANS CONSIDERED "COFFEE."

Alfred Peet circa the late 1960s. Peet's Coffee via Facebook

Seeking new grounds, Peet moved to San Francisco in 1955. At the time however, America was known for drinking coffee that tasted like "dishwater," according to Jim Reynolds, a longtime ambassador for Peet's brand (he holds the title of Roastmaster Emeritus). "I came to the richest country in the world, so why are they drinking the lousiest coffee?" Mr. Peet asked himself, and he set out to do something about it.

Hoping to replace the black sludge in Americans’ mugs with premium, imported coffee beans, Peet opened his first store on the corner of Walnut and Vine streets in Berkeley, California in 1966.

3. THE FIRST DEVOTEES OF THE STORE WERE CALLED "PEETNIKS."

The neighborhood around Peet’s soon gained a reputation as a place where one could find high-quality food. Nicknamed "the Gourmet Ghetto" by the late 1970s, the first foodies flocked to artisanal cheese and chocolate shops in the area, which became known as the breeding ground for socially conscious California cuisine. And Peet’s Coffee was right in the thick of it from the beginning. The brand's cult following began calling themselves Peetniks, and the company still uses the term today for their customer loyalty program.

4. PEET IS CREDITED WITH STARTING THE HIGH-END COFFEE REVOLUTION IN AMERICA.

Roastmaster Emeritus Jim Reynolds. Peet's Coffee via Facebook

Soon, everyone was talking about the new coffee coming out of Peet’s store, including three men who would later start a small coffee shop in Seattle (but more on that later). "Everybody was drinking coffee that came out of a can, but Alfred was a purist rooted in the European tradition," Alice Waters, the chef of influential Gourmet Ghetto eatery Chez Panisse, told The New York Times. "He taught us a new way to look at food, wine, and coffee—paying attention to the preparation, the ritual, and understanding how the beans and ingredients were grown."

5. STARBUCKS FOUNDER JERRY BALDWIN LEFT AND THEN RETURNED TO PEET'S.

Jerry Baldwin started his career in the coffee business scooping beans at Peet’s. When he and his two friends Gordon Bowker and Zev Siegel decided to open their own coffee shop in Seattle in 1971, they initially sourced all their green coffee beans (the beans they'd later roast) from Peet himself. "All of my early coffee knowledge came from Alfred and what we learned there," Baldwin told Fortune last year.

But in 1984, while running his own growing coffee company, Baldwin learned Peet’s Coffee was up for sale. In a decision he says was a no-brainer, he bought Peet’s, and then three years later sold Starbucks (at this point, both Bowker and Siegel had already left the company) to current CEO Howard Schultz. Baldwin still sits on the Board of Directors of Peet's.

6. PEET'S AND STARBUCKS ONCE HAD A NON-COMPETE AGREEMENT OVER THE BAY AREA.

As part of the deal between Baldwin and Schultz, Starbucks agreed it would not open a franchise on Peet’s home turf for the first five years. But, when that agreement expired in 1992, Schultz immediately bought space and opened a Starbucks right next door to a San Francisco Peet's. Baldwin was furious, but Peet's continued to thrive, and the two locations on Chestnut Street in the Marina District are both still open.

7. WHEN PEET'S ANNOUNCED IT WAS BEING BOUGHT BY A PRIVATE COMPANY, EVERYONE ASSUMED THE COMPANY WAS STARBUCKS.

After 11 years of being publicly traded on the Nasdaq, Peet’s was bought by a German conglomerate for nearly $1 billion in 2012—not by the company everyone thought would be Peet’s highest bidder. Joh. A. Benckiser, the current owner, also has majority stakes in OPI Nail Polish, Jimmy Choo, and Caribou Coffee.

8. PEET'S HOLDS A NATIONAL BARISTA COMPETITION FOR ITS EMPLOYEES EACH YEAR.

After making it through district and regional competitions, top-notch baristas are invited to compete in a national competition where they are judged on technical quality and taste. Contestants are given 15 minutes to prepare three drinks for the panel of four judges: an espresso, a cappuccino, and a signature beverage.

9. COFFEE LOYALISTS WERE CONCERNED AT THE COMPANY'S BUYING SPREE IN 2015.

After joining forces with Mighty Leaf Tea in August 2014, Peet’s acquired both Portland, Oregon cold brew darling Stumptown and Chicago's super-premium coffee company Intelligentsia Coffee in October 2015. The caffeine addicts of the Twitter universe voiced their concerns over the mergers, with hits such as "Dear @Intelligentsia, please don’t lose your soul." Both brands, however, remain independently run and their founders (both of whom got their start at Peet’s) remain active in operations.

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
Original image
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!

Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
Original image
Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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