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Thanksgiving Dinner Disasters and How to Avoid Them

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Cooking dinner on Thanksgiving is pressure enough without a calamity derailing the affair. Here are a few Turkey Day disasters, and how you can avoid them.

1. Varnished Memories


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Jessica Sims, a poison information provider at the Illinois Poison Center, once received a call from a woman who had accidentally varnished a turkey. The caller's husband had put varnish in a Tupperware and stored it in the fridge; she had assumed the varnish was a condiment, and used it to baste the turkey. "All of the guests remarked how perfect the turkey looked, a beautiful deep golden brown," Sims writes. "The left over varnish was made into gravy, which stuck to everything. Unfortunately the mistake was realized AFTER everyone ate this varnish." The lesson here? "We should never store household products or chemicals near food."

Jessica Metz, a certified specialist in poison information at the Illinois Poison Center, has another tip: Don't use an oral thermometer to check your turkey's temperature. "A fever thermometer only goes up to about 110ºF, and a turkey needs to be cooked until at least >170ºF, so the glass can shatter and leak mercury," she writes. "Glass and mercury is not the kind of dressing your dinner guests are expecting."

2. Fit to be Fried


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The Westcliffe, Colorado Wet Mountain Tribune assembled a slew of disaster stories, but one tale in particular stood out: the Fisher family's. Husband Greg had decided to deep fry a turkey, so he set up the fryer in the yard and got to work. According to his wife, Deborah, when dinnertime arrived, one part of the turkey was not well cooked enough, so they cut it off and put it back in the fryer. “We were all around the table enjoying our lovely meal,” Deborah told the Tribune, "when grandma exclaimed there was a pretty orange color outside.” The cooker had caught on fire, and the whole backyard was lit up. By the time the fire was put out, dinner was cold.

The Fishers were fortunate—fryer fires can often be disastrous. But there are a few guidelines you can follow that will make frying a bird safer. First, don't set up indoors! Make sure the fryer is on stable ground, so it can't tip and splash anyone with 350-degree oil. And defrost the turkey completely before putting it in the fryer—combining oil and water (caused by defrosting ice crystals) will often cause an explosive blaze. The National Fire Protection Association has more advice on what to do and what not to do here. The NFPA actually discourages "the use of outdoor gas-fueled turkey fryers that immerse the turkey in hot oil" and instead recommends seeking out "professional establishments, such as grocery stores, specialty food retailers, and restaurants for the preparation of the dish, or consider a new type of 'oil-less' turkey fryer."

3. Extra Baggage


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Based on his column for The Somerville News, Jimmy DelPonte's Thanksgivings are nearly always an event to remember. Once, the bird was too big to fit in the oven. Another time, the heating element in his oven blew up, causing a fire and embedding metal shrapnel in the turkey. And twice, DelPonte has cooked the bird with a few extra accessories. "When I was very young and newly married, I had the whole family over to my house to cook my first Thanksgiving Day dinner," he writes. "My mother, who was so sweet, tried not to look too disappointed when she opened the oven to check it out. It was breast side down with a little smoke coming out from where I didn’t even remove the inners bag!" And again: "The first time I had Thanksgiving Day at my house, I cooked the bird leaving a spoon and the bag of giblets in it. Then when we were cleaning up, I cut my finger and ended up in emergency room for stitches." So learn from DelPonte's example: Check inside the bird before you put it in the oven, and be careful with sharp objects.

4. Who Let the Dogs Out?


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It might seem like common sense to lock up your pets when cooking a Thanksgiving dinner, but in the chaos of arriving family members and other distractions, it's easy to forget. Take Frank Gunsberg of Ramsey, New Jersey, who was hosting a dinner for 20 guests when he realized both his golden retriever and the turkey were missing. He found them in a cabinet—the bird on the floor, unmarred but for a few puncture wounds. Though his wife protested, Gunsberg wiped down the bird and served it anyway. "Those guests are hearing this story for the first time," he told North Jersey.com.

Then there was the case of a chihuahua who climbed inside a bird. "A frantic new mom hosting her first Thanksgiving feast had a Chihuahua that climbed up onto the kitchen table and into the turkey, and she couldn’t get the dog out," writes Todd Sigg on the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. "I told her to pull really hard and yank the little guy out. I could understand the awesomeness of it from the dog’s point of view—a meat room."

It's not just dogs you have to worry about. In this call for Turkey Day disasters, one commenter told a story about walking away from the sink and coming back "to find out that the cat had pulled the thawed turkey out of the sink and onto the floor and had chewed off a large portion of the breast!" And when Tina Pyne's then 9-year-old nephew decided to play a prank on her at their family's Thanksgiving dinner by putting his pet iguana on her head, the iguana took off, through all the food. “Every person there was covered in flying food,” Tina told West University Buzz. “We went out for Chinese.”

The takeaway is obvious: Keeping your pets away from your meal not only ensures you have a meal to eat, but also protects your pets from eating foods that might be poisonous to them. (This is also a good reason to avoid feeding your animals at the table, which encourages bad habits.)

5. Recipe For Disaster


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In the insanity of Thanksgiving meal prep, it's easy to forget an ingredient or miss a key step, whether it's neglecting to put sugar in your pumpkin pie, cooking stuff (like stuffing and turkey) together that should be cooked separately, using white vinegar instead of white wine on the turkey, or skipping slurry and creating really lumpy gravy. So don't get fancy. Keep your recipe nearby, and follow it closely.

And while you're at it, make sure you have the right equipment: a good meat thermometer will help you avoid trying to plate an undercooked or frozen bird, and big, deep pans will keep fat and other turkey fluids from dripping all over your oven (which might smoke out your guests). Last thing: Check for expiration dates and keep your bird within the proper temperature range so you don't accidentally make people sick.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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