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Frankenfoods: Six Snacks Prepared In The Lab

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1. Carbonated Fruit

FizzyFruit.jpgWhile enjoying a nice, crisp apple or a ripe, juicy pear, do you ever think to yourself, "This would be so much better with a little carbon dioxide"? Well, apparently you aren't the only one. Fizzy Fruit, the world's first carbonated fruit, is now hitting grocery store shelves near you.

Neurobiologist Galen Kaufman got the idea for carbonating fruit when he bit into a pear that had been hanging out in a cooler filled with dry ice. The carbon dioxide from the dry ice had mixed with the water content of the fruit, resulting in a carbonated effect. Together with the Food Innovation Center, a research facility at Oregon State University, Kaufman developed this idea into Fizzy Fruit. It's been a hit at pilot schools across the country and is now served in more than 600 school districts. And if the carbonation in the fruit doesn't have enough fizz factor for you, maybe you should think about adding your fizzy fruit to your fizzy yogurt"¦

2. Carbonated Yogurt

Fizzix.jpgFirst came drinkable yogurt. Then Go-Gurt, in tubes. Now, carbonated yogurt? Yep. It's called Fizzix and it comes in flavors that sound suspiciously like Pop Rocks, including Blue Raspberry Rage, Strawberry Lemonade Jolt and Fruit Punch Charge.

Brigham Young food scientist Lynn Ogden came up with the idea similar to the way Fizzy Fruit was conceptualized "“ after adding dry ice to yogurt it was filled with CO2 when the ice broke down. He and his students messed around with the idea for years before perfecting the technique (yogurt is prone to exploding when carbonated) and receiving a patent. Ogden started selling "Sparkling Yogurt" on the BYU campus and eventually sold the idea to General Mills in 2006. Although kids apparently love Fizzix, it didn't win any fans when Fortune magazine did a taste-test on the product "“ one tester referred to Fizzix as "Yuck-plait."

3. Caffeinated Donuts

If your idea of breakfast is more along the lines of a jelly donut and a Diet Coke or three, soon you can cut combine the two. Dr. Robert Bohannon, a molecular scientist who graduated from the Baylor College of Medicine, is the brains behind Encaff, an additive that inserts caffeine into everyday foods while hiding the bitter caffeine taste. Bohannon has already developed Buzz Donuts and Buzzed Bagels and is working with companies to inject Encaff into gum, breakfast bars and smoothies. Food that has been Encaffienated will contain somewhere between 50 to 100 mg of caffeine, which is a pretty typical amount "“ a standard cup of coffee contains about 50 mg.

4. Caffeinated Beer

B2E.jpgOne area of the market Bohannon can't corner, though, is beer. Caffeinated beer has been on the shelves since 2005, when Anheuser-Busch launched BE (pronounced "B to the E"). BE contains 54 mg of caffeine and smells like "blackberry and a little bit of cherry", according to the creator of BE, Nathaniel Davis. But one bartender says it tastes like tangerine. I guess it's one of those things you will just have to try for yourself "“ that is, if mixing a stimulant and a depressant doesn't concern you at all. BE "“ also known as Bud Extra "“ is now just one of many caffeinated beers available to consumers, including Labatt's Shok (60 mg of caffeine), and Molson's Kick (55 mg of caffeine).

5. Bacon-Flavored Salt

baconsalt.jpgBacon Salt is a product that was just launched by self-titled "Bacontrepreneurs" Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow. It's a zero-calorie, zero-fat, zero-carb, zero-meat seasoning that tastes just like bacon. It's even kosher. Justin and Dave came up with the idea while discussing their mutual love for bacon, and shortly thereafter, Bacon Salt was born. They held a taste-test amongst friends early in 2007 and received rave reviews, except for the maple-flavored bacon salt. However, the original, hickory and peppered flavors were big hits. Justin and Dave say that Bacon Salt is delicious on everything from grilled meats to veggies to, yes, bacon. Dave's father-in-law claims to like it on ice cream and a Bacon Salt fan sent a picture of Bacon Salt on watermelon. If anyone tries Bacon Salt on ice cream, be sure to let me know.

6. Sliced Jelly

pjsquares.jpgSliced jelly is for those days when you really don't have the energy to open up a jar and get out a knife to make your PBJ. John M. Codilis is president and CEO of P.J. Squares LLC, a company that makes a sandwich slices with strawberry or grape jelly on one side and peanut butter on the other. Hungry consumers just have to unwrap a slice, throw it on some bread and enjoy. No jars, no knives, no muss, no fuss! Although it might sound a little unnecessary and, OK, more than a little lazy, it does have practical origins: the inventor of peanut butter slices (plain peanut butter without a side made of jelly), John Bogan, was watching his young son attempt to make himself lunch. He was completely destroying his slices of bread in the peanut butter spreading process, so Bogan thought he would invent something easy for small kids to use. Codilis says about 40 percent of P.J. Squares buyers unwrap the slices and eat them solo, no bread required.

I'm sure these few examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bizarre products on the market. What have you seen? Better yet, what have you tried?

You'll be seeing a lot more Weird Science here on the site, including a series of posts from Senior Weird Science Correspondent Chris Weber.

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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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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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