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5 Foods People Actually Die For

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By Christa Weil

When making soup requires scaling a cliff, and grabbing a few olives involves avoiding gunfire, it's time to find some comfort food that's a little more comfortable.

1. Iwatake

The annals of Arctic exploration are filled with accounts of frostbitten limbs and near starvation. In fact, many adventurers have reported being so hungry that they've scraped papery-crisp lichen off rocks and boiled it into passably edible food. One outdoorsman even claimed that if braised shoe leather was in a taste-test with lichen, the shoe leather would come out on top. And yet, this very same survival food is considered a delicacy in Japan. There, iwatake (iwa meaning rock, and take meaning mushroom) is so highly sought-after that harvesters are willing to rappel down cliff faces for the precious growths. (It takes about a century for the lichen to get to a worthwhile size.) Needless to say, this is specialty work. As if the rappelling isn't tricky enough, iwatake is best harvested in wet weather, because the moisture reduces the chance that the lichen will crumble as it's pried off with a sharp knife. In its preferred preparation, the black and slimy raw material is transformed into a delicate tempura. And while iwatake in any form doesn't taste like much, it's esteemed for its associations with longevity. As for the harvesters? Their longevity's more questionable. "Never give lodging to an iwatake hunter," goes an old Japanese adage, "for he doesn't always survive to pay rent."

2. Bird's Nest Soup

800px-Birds_Nest_soup.jpgCantilevered high off cave walls and cliffs along the seas of Southeast Asia are the nests of the white-nest swiftlet—a bird that's managed to turn an embarrassing drool problem into a useful D.I.Y. project. The nests, sturdy constructions no bigger than the palm of your hand, are made from the birds' spit. Yup, these swiftlets have specialized saliva glands powerful enough to turn their tongues into avian glue guns.You'd think being stuck in caves high above the ground, and the fact that they're birds' nests, would protect them against humans—but no. Ever since sailors first brought the nests home for the Chinese emperor and his family in the first century CE, bird's nest soup has been a favorite among the country's elite. Never mind that it's virtually tasteless; the dish is revered for health reasons. Of course, acquiring the main ingredient is less healthy. Nest harvesters must stand on rickety bamboo scaffolding hundreds of feet off the ground in pitch darkness. They must also endure unbelievable heat and humidity as they try to avoid all the insects, birds, and bats that live in the caves. In addition, the extraordinary value of the nests means the zones are patrolled by machine-gun toting guards. Harvesting rights are multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals arranged with national governments, and poaching is ruthlessly prohibited. Unarmed fishermen have been shot dead after accidentally beaching in swiftlet territory, and local tour group operators pay exorbitant fees to avoid rifle-assisted leaks springing in their kayaks. It all underscores the fact that being a nest harvester is less of a career choice and more of a life sentence—especially considering that the skill is almost exclusively passed on from father to son.

3. West Bank Olives

2.Olives-Brined.jpgCome the November harvest season each year, Palestinian landowners on the far side of the Green Line (which bounds the pre-1967 border between Jordan and Israel) cope with the standard hazards of olive picking. They deal with raw fingertips, accidental falls from the upper boughs of the trees, and backaches from stooping to gather fallen fruit. All that effort to glean olive oil, which has fueled the local economy for centuries. But the latter-day olive harvest involves a much more deadly threat. Some Israeli settlers are intent on driving the farmers away from the groves, and they've armed themselves with rocks and scope rifles to block the Palestinian landowners from their livelihood. In recent years, Israeli police and Jewish peace activists have worked alongside the pickers to curb harassment, but the year-round tending of these ancient groves remains a life-threatening pursuit. Humans aren't the sole targets, either. According to the Jerusalem Post, vandals burned or otherwise destroyed more than 1,000 olive trees in the West Bank in 2005. Sadly, it will require plenty of time and hard work on the part of the governing bodies before the farmers' only concerns are workaday aches and pains.

4. Snapping Turtle

Asnapper-soup2.jpgTurtle soup was a staple of 19th-century gourmets, usually ladled out of huge tureens for the first course. And no wonder; turtle meat is tasty, fibrous, and chewy—kind of like barbecued pork. But getting the meat in the quantities Grover Cleveland and his ilk demanded meant getting the biggest turtles around, and in most of the United States, that meant going after snapping turtles. The traditional means of capturing the giant creatures (which grow up to 180 lbs.) is called noodling, which involves brave souls trawling along the banks of rivers, lakes, and ponds, and occasionally wading neck-deep to stick a boot into the turtles' lairs. If a noodler hits shell, next in are the hands, which try to haul the critter out while avoiding its famously strong jaws.

On-the-job accidents come with the territory. According to outdoor expert Keith Sutton, author of Hunting Arkansas, "noodlers are nicknamed "˜nubbins' as the result of unfortunate encounters with snappers." Amazingly, the job isn't over once the turtle is captured, either. Turns out, killing the animal is another exercise in raw nerve. We'll spare you the details, except to say that it's ill-advised to handle the animal's head until at least a day after its execution. Even decapitated, the snapping turtle has a long memory.

5. Gooseneck Barnacle

800px-Barnacle.JPG.jpgYou've probably never seen gooseneck barnacles on a menu in the States, but it's only a matter of time. Besides being a popular Christmastime appetizer in Spain and Portugal (where it's known as percebes), it's gaining ground in America and being harvested off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. But harvesting this rock-dwelling crustacean is no simple matter. Barnacle fishers typically tie themselves to the rocks in a surge zone along the ocean and pry the creatures off between waves. To do this, they have to use a crowbar to break the animals' self-adhesive, which is so resistant to tampering that scientists were long mystified by its chemical makeup. In other words, removing a barnacle takes lots of traction, which, given the waves, can be tricky. A poorly maintained tether, or a harvester too impatient to tie in, can easily end with a call to the Coast Guard. Of those brave enough to harvest gooseneck barnacles, one Coast Guard official said, "The best we can do is retrieve the bodies."

Editor's Note: Christa Weil is the author of Fierce Food: The Intrepid Diner's Guide to the Unusual, Exotic, and Downright Bizarre (Plume, 2006), available in bookstores nationwide.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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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]