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10 Ways We Use Corn

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The most historically American crop is also the most versatile. Corn (Zea mays) is essentially grass that has been cultivated and bred to the size it is today. Originally cultivated in Mexico 7,000 years ago, corn is now America's biggest crop and a staple of the global food supply. Corn is used in many ways other than feasting on at the dinner table or popping for movie snacks, some you might not even realize.

(Image by Flickr user Sasakei)

1. Cornmeal

Cornmeal is made by grinding whole corn. The coarsest meal is called grits, which is used to make corn flakes. A somewhat finer grade is sold in stores to make cornbread, deep-fry batter, and hushpuppies. Even more finely ground meal is called corn cones, and is used for baking and for dusting pizza dough. The finest grade of ground corn is corn flour, used for pancakes, donuts, breading, and baby food. Another type of cornmeal is called masa flour, which is made by treating corn with lime (alkalai). This releases the corn's niacin into a form the body can use. The resulting whole corn is called hominy, and ground treated corn is dried and powdered to make masa flour, which is then used to make tortillas and tamales.

When you get past corn as a whole food in itself, you get into the wet-mill process, which breaks down corn into its components, and here is where you get so many other corn products.

(Image source: University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture)

2. Penicillin

Corn steep liquor is a byproduct of the process of separating the various parts of corn (see the byproduct in this flowchart). It is the water used to soak the various components, and it is reused in several steps. Corn steep liquor contains acids, yeast, gluten, and plenty of nitrogen, and is partially fermented by the time it leaves the mill. It was discarded as waste until the 1940s, when scientists determined that corn steep liquor is the perfect medium in which to grow large quantities of penicillin.

3. Starch

Corn Starch is made from the endosperm of the corn, the part of the seed that exists to nourish the potential new plant. After the hull and germ are removed, the endosperm is ground up and the gluten is separated from the starch, leaving nothing but carbohydrate. Corn starch is used as a thickening agent for liquid food and an alternative to talc in body powder. It is mixed with sugar to make confectioners sugar and was once used to make clothing keep a nicely-pressed look. Corn starch is also the main ingredient in biodegradable plastic.

4. Sugar

Corn syrup is made from corn starch. Starch is a carbohydrate, a molecular chain of sugars. Enzymes are added to the starch to break the chains into sugars, mainly glucose. Further processing can change the sugars into high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS is used to sweeten a variety of products, most notably soft drinks. Corn syrup is much cheaper and sweeter than cane sugar. A number of studies have linked the use of HFCS to the rise in obesity. Whether this correlation (which does not prove causation) is due to any organic differences between HFCS and cane sugar or to the quantity consumed is still under debate. The Corn Refiner's Association has asked the FDA for permission to change the term used for high-fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar".

5. Whiskey

(Image by Flickr user Bluegrass Annie)

People have made liquor from their crops for thousands of years, and in the western hemisphere that meant whiskey distilled from corn. During the settlement of the Appalachian Mountains by European immigrants, farmers found it much easier to transport their corn crop to distant markets when they distilled it first (and just as profitable, if not more so). Taxes imposed during the Civil War and later liquor prohibition laws split the corn whiskey industry into the legal distilling of Bourbon and the illegal distilling of moonshine, so called because it was produced at night to evade notice.

6. Ethanol

(Image by Flickr user Jeffrey Beall)

Distilled alcohol from grain is called ethanol. The word in modern usage usually refers to ethanol fuel or biofuel made by distilling corn. Regular gasoline-powered cars can run on gas blended with up to 10% ethanol. Corn is a renewable resource, so biofuels are seen as a replacement for fossil fuels. However, the growing use of corn for biofuel raises concerns about the diminishing availability of corn for food. Also, the production of biofuels uses as much -or more- energy than it produces.

7. Cornsilk

Tea brewed from cornsilk is used as a remedy for urinary tract infections, as it has diuretic properties. The tea has been marketed to help everything from bedwetting to diabetes to cancer, but the medical community says there is insufficient evidence for such claims. Cornsilk is not harmful to most people, but there are some warnings for those with some health conditions or who are taking certain medications.

8. Corn Cobs

Corn cobs might seem like the throwaway part of corn, but have their uses -and more uses are discovered or developed all the time. Ground cobs are used for livestock feed. Traditional farm uses include animal bedding, toilet paper substitute, landfill, fuel, and to make corn cob jelly. Modern industrial products made from corn cobs include absorbents for oil and hazardous waste, insecticides, fertilizer, and grit for tumbling and blasting. Cobs, as well as corn stalks, are starting to be used to produce ethanol. And you can still make a pipe out of a corn cob.

9. Oil

Oil is produced by squeezing the germ of the corn. It is used as a food ingredient and for frying food in (most appropriately for popping popcorn). Margarine is often made from corn oil, although other oils are used as well. Corn oil is also used in many cosmetics, soaps, medicines, and other products.

10. Glue

Corn germ is a waste product of the separation of corn components. It is what's left of the plant germ after the oil has been pressed out, and is used for livestock feed. However, components of corn germ can be used to make industrial glue stronger. This reduces the amount of resin required in the glue formula, which should make the adhesive less expensive to produce.

(Image by Flickr user Terry McCombs)

Meanwhile, we can use corn in all its harvest glory to decorate our homes and businesses for autumn.

Today is October 10, 2010—10.10.10! To celebrate, we've got all our writers working on 10 lists, which we'll be posting throughout the day and night. To see all the lists we've published so far, click here.

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technology
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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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]

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