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Dispatches from Afghanistan Sam: How to Buy, Slaughter and Spit-Roast a Sheep

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When my friend Sam told me he'd be spending a year in Kabul, Afghanistan to make documentary films, I thought, boy's gone crayzay! But now that he's there, and seems to be not only surviving but thriving, the reality of his situation has become clear to me: it's blog gold. Thus, I present what I hope will become a regular or at least a once-in-awhile feature here, in which Sam (at left, not wearing hat) will talk about not only the Flossier side of life in a war zone, but some of the trials and triumphs he's experienced while there. We'd also love to give our readers a chance to ask Sam some questions, so if there's anything you want to know, or you'd like him to discuss, speak up! He's our man in Afghanistan.

For this installment, I wanted to keep it light and practical, so Sam cooked up this handy step-by-step guide on how to buy, slaughter and spit-roast a sheep (for your girlfriend's thirtieth birthday) in Afghanistan. Enjoy -- and bon appetit!

This is a tale of love, sheep, and the perfect birthday present.

I arrived only recently in Kabul, and shortly after I got here, my girlfriend had the pleasure of turning 30. The charity she works for has its offices in a large fort here in Kabul, and they had already planned a party for her in their spacious courtyard. But with her birthday rapidly approaching, and her 20s rapidly receding, I still hadn't gotten her a present. I didn't want to buy her another head scarf, and I seem to have atrocious taste in jewelry, so I had very few options, considering the absence of Nordstroms and Bergdorm Goodmans here in Kabul. So I hopped in a taxi and decided to roam the streets, my eyes peeled.

In addition to hosting thirty years of war, Kabul is also host to some of the world's worst traffic. Cars and trucks and hand drawn carts fight for position on the dusty streets, seemingly unaware of any traffic laws. [Ed. note: Kabul has only one set of working traffic lights for more than 600,000 cars; its roads were built 50 years ago to accommodate just 50,000 cars, and haven't been updated since. Here's a video of nightmare traffic in Kabul.]

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The situation is complicated by herds of sheep, which wander at will through the city from one trash pile to the next. These herds supply Kabul with its main supply of meat, and you can wander down streets with rows of butcher shops with fresh carcasses in the windows. Just then, as I was mulling the situation, stuck in traffic, my cab driver furiously honking at one of these herds of sheep crossing the road, wondering if I was perhaps the worst birthday present buyer in history, it hit me. In a flash of insight, I astounded myself by coming up with the perfect gift (or at least it seemed that way at the time).

Here, then, are my 10 easy steps for slaughtering and spit-roasting a sheep for someone's 30th birthday.

1) Purchase sheep.

This is not that hard. Walk up to a sheep-herder (usually found near large piles of trash), and hand him $100. He will eagerly show you the best of his flock, although actually selecting one can be more challenging. I would avoid the one munching on discarded diapers.

2) Transport sheep to the fort.

Or wherever you plan to boil and spit-roast the sucker. This is not easy, and entails a fair amount of sheep wrangling skills (which I learned on the job; not recommended). And a truck.

3) Hang out with sheep

... while you wait for the butcher to arrive. (No, I didn't kill it myself). Try to avoid looking into its eyes as it follows you around, looking for more diapers to munch on.

4) Slaughter sheep.

sheep_pot.jpgHave you ever heard the expression, "like a sheep to the slaughter?" Well, I now know where it comes from. It is both comforting and horrifying to realize that your newly purchased sheep has no idea what awaits it as the butcher holds his cleaver over its throat. Thankfully, it's over soon. And after the butcher deftly skins and guts it, you are now the proud owner of a sheep carcass.

5) Boil sheep.

This step can probably be skipped in other countries, but here in Afghanistan the sheep are notoriously tough, which I assume comes from their exclusive trash diet. If this is the case, boiling the carcass before roasting it will soften it up. First, build a fire. Then, if you're like me, realize that the pot you have is nowhere near large enough to fit a whole sheep in. Frantically hunt for a larger pot. Rebuild fire. Fill pot with water. Stuff sheep in pot. Realize that you can't lift it. Empty pot. Put pot on fire. Fill with water. Stuff with sheep. Wait for it to boil. Stoke fire. Wait some more while relishing in your accomplishments thus far:
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6) Marinate sheep.

After it has boiled for two hours or so, the sheep is ready for marinating. I recommend a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and dried herbs. Remember to keep the lemon halves to stuff in the cavity.

7) Spit sheep.

Assuming you had the foresight to actually purchase a spit (or the good sense to know somebody who owns one), this part is surprisingly easy. Just take a 3" diameter metal spit and maneuver it in through the neck and out the anus. (Gross, I know, but important nonetheless. You don't want the thing you spent all day wrangling and butchering to fall into the fire you're trying to cook it over.) Just remember to screw a bolt through the ribs so that it will turn with the spit.

8) Cook sheep.

I recommend opening a beer at this stage, and enlisting helpers. For some reason, people get really excited about turning a spitted sheep over a fire. Just remember to keep basting it with the marinade as it cooks, or it'll dry out.
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9) Remove sheep from spit and carve.

Carving a sheep is nothing like carving a Thanksgiving turkey, and if you're doing it in Afghanistan you probably won't have the benefit of an electric carving knife. Find a clean surface and lay the sheep down. Get a buddy to help you, and remove the legs from the body with a sharp knife. This will make carving the body meat a lot easier. By this time, though, friends and gawkers nearby have usually had a few drinks and have been salivating over the roasting sheep for a few hours already, and because the previous eight steps took a little longer than they anticipated, it's hard to stop a ravenous, slightly tipsy crowd from carving the sheep while it's still on the spit. (If that's the case, I recommend giving up control at this point.)

10) Pass out.

After selecting, purchasing, slaughtering, spitting, and roasting the sheep, and having a few beers, I fell asleep somewhere during step 9 and never got to eat it. Apparently it was good -- at least according to my girlfriend, which was all that mattered.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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