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Marla Keays via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Enduring Mystery of the Oreo Cookie Design

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Marla Keays via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When the National Biscuit Company introduced the Oreo cookie in March of 1912, there was no mistaking its origins. It was a blatant knock-off of Sunshine Biscuits's Hydrox, a double-wafer chocolate and cream sandwich snack that capitalized on the popularity of a similar home-baked treat that had been circulating since the mid-1800s.

The Hydrox was introduced in 1908. But Sunshine had relatively little of the advertising or production power of Nabisco, which was formed in 1898 as a conglomerate of baking companies: The fact that it beat Oreo to shelves by four years was irrelevant. Consumers largely passed up Hydrox and opted for Oreos, which were sold in bulk for 30 cents a pound.

The two cookies had more in common than a similar taste: Both used cookies that were ornate, with wreaths adorning the outer side. In 1952, possibly in an attempt to further distance themselves from the competition, Nabisco opted to change the Oreo design to a slightly more complex pattern that has invited comparisons to everything from the Knights Templar to the Freemasons.

Were conspiracy theorists focusing too hard on the humble Oreo? Or has the cookie been trying to tell us something all along?

Morgan via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Oreo wasn’t the only snack Nabisco introduced in 1912. The company also produced Veronese biscuits and Mother Goose cookies, the latter embossed with characters from popular nursery rhymes. As with Hydrox, it had become common to create cookie molds that could imprint a distinctive shape on top of the crunchy wafers. It's a practice that likely has origins in Europe, where producers of communion wafers used molds to create edible religious symbols.

Mass-market cookie businesses had more cynical motivations. It was in their best interests to create distinctive patterns that helped consumers distinguish one product from another. Nabisco’s Lorna Doone cookies had a vaguely atomic symbol along with the cookie’s name; Hydrox opted for flower petals in addition to wreaths. Even out of the package, it was easy to tell one sugary snack from the other.

In 1924, Nabisco made a slight alteration to the Oreo, adding turtle doves on either end of the cookie’s name and enlarging the font. It remained unchanged for nearly 30 years, until 1952, when a former Nabisco mail room employee named William Turnier was tasked with building a better cookie.

Turnier had arrived at the company in 1923, running correspondence for executives before he befriended workers on the food engineering side of their headquarters in New York City. At night, he pursued his GED: Turnier had dropped out of school over bullying he had experienced as a result of being afflicted with polio.

“He was about 18 months old when he got it,” Bill Turnier, a professor of law at the University of North Carolina and the late designer’s son, tells mental_floss. “He was a very bright guy and should’ve gone on to college, but people made fun of his limp and he couldn’t take it. Bullying is nothing new.”

Shadowing creative employees, Turnier developed a new skill set—industrial engineer—and was eventually hired on to revamp Nutter Butter as well as their line of Milk-Bone dog treats.

It’s not known what direction, if any, Turnier was given when it was time to give the Oreo a facelift. The only thing he kept was the cookie’s name in the center. In place of the wreaths, Turnier positioned an array of four-petal flowers. Surrounding the word “Oreo” was a colophon, or emblem, that was a circle with two crossed lines at the top. It was the same design Nabisco had been using to adorn its company logo.

“That was his idea,” Turnier says. “That design goes back to monks who used it on the bottom of manuscripts they copied in Medieval times. It was a sign of craft—saying they did the best they could. Nabisco really liked that.”

Satisfied with Turnier’s blueprint, which allowed the company to create dough molds to his specifications, the Oreo underwent its cosmetic change in 1952; Turnier continued to work for Nabisco until retiring in 1973. It was unlikely he had any awareness that his design for the Oreo would become a kind of Rorschach test for snack lovers, with people finding subversive messages in the way he illustrated the cookie.

In theories that have become easier to disseminate with the advent of the internet, some Oreo observers have noted that Turnier’s four-leaf flower looks remarkably like a cross pattée, a symbol that the Knights Templar carried into the Crusades in the 12th century. The two-bar cross could be construed as the Cross of Lorraine, also from the Knights Templar. Alternately, both could be a subtle nod to the Freemasons, a secret society that functions to this day.

How much of this is inferred and how much did Turnier intend? According to his son, the elder Turnier's choices were aesthetic in nature. “He just liked the look of the flowers. He could never understand when people would locate him demanding some kind of explanation. ‘Why did you use a four-petal flower? There aren’t any!’ Here’s a man in his 80s, and he’d call me up quite distressed.

“And of course, there is a four-petal flower, the fireweed. We had some when I was growing up in our backyard.”

Likewise, there was no meaning to the number of ridges—90—that surround the cookie’s margin. “He said he probably used a compass to make sure they were evenly-spaced,” Turnier says. The smaller triangles near the word “Oreo” were probably inserted to avoid having any empty space on the cookie’s face.

While Turnier believes his father was not inclined to reference religious iconography, he does note that one member of his family held an intriguing position. “My grandfather was a Freemason,” he says. “But my dad was Catholic.” Though he was probably exposed to Freemason imagery during his life, Turnier had no intention of delivering a secret handshake to cookie lovers.

Andy Melton via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Nabisco has never offered an official explanation for the design. They do not, in fact, fully acknowledge Turnier had anything to do with it, insisting that their records don’t account for who was responsible for the cookie’s alteration in 1952—only that Turnier worked as a design engineer during that period of time.

Turnier, who keeps a copy of his father’s original 1952 blueprint hanging in his Chapel Hill, North Carolina home, believes the Oreo was simply adorned with easy-to-replicate designs that were possible thanks to the cookie’s durable texture. “The dough dictates what you can do with the cookie,” he says. “The dough for Oreo, you could almost make a coin out of it. You can insert a lot of detail. And then people look for meaning.”

The elder Turnier died in 2004. In contrast to the theories and mystery that have surrounded his work, the etching on his tombstone is unmistakable: Set in the upper right corner just above his name is a fully adorned Oreo cookie. 

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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