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5 New Alternative Meats

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Meat consumption usually means beef, pork, or chicken. Mutton and venison are common also. My favorite Indian restaurant avoids both beef and pork for religious reasons, but sometimes offers goat as an alternative to chicken. In the past few years, rising food prices and concerns about the environment are leading people to try new and different sources of meat. Here are five you may have never thought about.

1. Raccoon

Raccoon meat is cheap if you know of a local trapper. In Kansas City, raccoons go for $3-7 dollars each, and a whole animal will feed five adults. Preparing raccoon meat isn't easy or quick. Frozen meat must be thawed, then parboiled, then stewed. The cooking time is measured in hours, but those who have tried it love the taste. That is, if you can get past thinking of raccoons as vermin, roadkill, or cute little masked bandits. You'll find one reminder: trappers remove the head and three paws, but leave one paw behind to prove the animal is not a dog or cat. Image by Flickr user Michael Scheltgen.

2. Camel


Camel meat is quite common in the Middle East, and is reportedly quite tasty. Australians are now encouraged to try camel meat as the continent's million-plus wild camel population is growing out of control. Camels are destroying the delicate ecosystem of the desert, and they burp huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the air. You can find camel recipes if you look, but beware that some recipes are more serious than others. Image by Flickr user lemoncat1.

3. Squirrel


Eating squirrel is nothing new in America. Just a few years ago, advice came from the University of Kentucky that people should not eat squirrel brains because they may contain a variant of Mad Cow Disease. The rest of the squirrel is fine, if a little stringy. Now squirrel meat is being promoted in Britain due to an overpopulation of gray squirrels. The American invaders are edging out the native red squirrels. Brits who resisted squirrel meat for centuries are now patting themselves on the back as they eat gray squirrel and do their part for the balance of nature. You'll find plenty of recipes for squirrel online. Image by Flickr user Darragh Sherwin.

4. Yattle


Yattle is the name given to a crossbreed of yaks and cattle. Yak meat has less fat than beef, because yak fat is near the skin, where it helps keep the cold-climate animal warm, whereas beef cattle distribute their fat throughout the meat. First-generation yattle are the result of mating between a yak and a cow or bull. Male yattle are sterile, but females can breed with bulls, resulting in a 25% yak ancestry for second-generation yattle. Yaks, and yattle, consume less food than cattle, and produce valuable fiber to make sweaters. Yattle meat is supposedly indistinguishable from yak meat.

5. Kangaroo


Kangaroos are both plentiful and meaty, with a low percentage of fat compared to beef. They are also less damaging to the environment than cattle. However, kangaroo meat is slow to catch on in Australia. After all, most nations don't eat their national symbol! Some European countries consume more kangaroo meat per capita than Australia, possibly because of Mad Cow Disease fears. Environmental groups encourage people to eat kangaroo because the animals do not burp or fart and therefore do not add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere -strangely the opposite reason people are encouraged to eat camel meat. Kangaroo meat is used in sausages, stews, steaks, burgers, and sandwiches. If you have some kangaroo meat, you may want to try out some recipes from the Kangaroo Industry Association. Image by Flickr user pierre pouliquin.

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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]