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Not Your Momma's Cookbooks (Part 3)

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For someone who doesn't like to cook (and who rarely cooks), I sure own a lot of cookbooks; I love seeing all the different foods that can be made. In my ventures through the cookbook aisles, I've noticed some with less-than-typical main ingredients, cooking methods, and themes. This weekend, I'm sharing with you a sampling of the most unusual—in one way or another—cookbooks out there.

Tonight: cookbooks with unique layouts and design

Unusual Formats

140 Characters or Less
Described as "a shorthand sous-chef," Eat Tweet presents 1,020 recipes originally tweeted from @cookbook, author Maureen Evans' recipe-focused Twitter account. Because each recipe has been condensed to 140 characters or less, with no photos, this cookbook is better suited for the text and code inclined than visual learners.

Step-by-Step Photos
Originally, cookbooks were entirely text, and fairly barebones text at that, based perhaps on the assumption that the people reading them already knew how to cook. What to Cook & How to Cook It is the cookbook for people who don't already know how to cook: each easy recipe is presented with clear instructions and photos of each individual step. There's even a photo glossary of cooking techniques in the back.

Photos Only
IKEA created an internet sensation when it released a free 140-page coffee-table book in the kitchen departments of its stores in Sweden. Hembakat är Bäst (Homemade is Best) presented recipes for Swedish baked goods in the simplest visual format possible: a photo of the ingredients, and a photo of the finished product. Carl Kleiner, the photographer, also produced 10 accompanying instructional videos that can be viewed on his Vimeo channel. (This cookbook was previously featured on our list of IKEA-style instructions for things other than IKEA products.)

Hungry? is an interactive cookbook from innocent, a UK company that makes smoothies, juices, fruit purees, and "veg pots." Aimed at families, the book is interspersed with facts, stories, games, and colorful graphics to keep kids entertained; it also identifies which steps of the recipes kids can help with. And the finishing touches? A pocket in the back to stash "Torn-out recipes, passports and secret documents... because burglars never steal recipe books" and a dish towel that lists "The 10 Commandments of Washing Up."

Another UK book, Kevin Gould's Dishy is full of unusual, quirky features: the recipes are presented in flow-chart format; hand-written notes, excerpts from literature, and photos are interspersed throughout; and the whole book has a retro feel, despite its 2000 publication. My favorite aspect? The little graphics indicating how many people each dish serves and their accompanying text—4 jack-o-lanterns for a pumpkin stew that serves four and "Serves 2 (if you get lucky)" for Venice Calves' Liver.

Until the release of Modernist Cuisine (below), Heston Blumenthal's The Big Fat Duck Cookbook was the biggest and most expensive cookbook on the market, weighing in at 10 pounds and priced at $250.00. The boxed book, complete with four ribbon markers and several gatefolds, is as much an art book or a biography as it is a cookbook. It's packed with illustrations and photographs, and the table of contents is "a four page fold-out peek into Blumenthal's mind." (If $250—or Amazon's discounted price of $157.50—is more than you want to pay, there's a less elaborate, non-boxed or be-ribboned version that's "only" $50, or $31.50 at Amazon).

6 Volumes
Nathan Myhrvold's 50 pound, 2,400-page, 6-volume Modernist Cousine set off a firestorm of discussion when it was listed on Amazon for $625.00. The "cookbook to end all cookbooks" is illustrated with gorgeous photographs that artfully depict the cooking process in action, with a burger cooking on a Weber grill in cross-section and a side-view of a stir-fry in which the food is flying out of the pan to illustrate how it transitions through three different cooking zones.

If you haven't read part one, with strange ingredients, unusual cooking methods, and unlikely author-chefs, or part two, with special themes and science-y goodness, check them out now.

So, _flossers, what are the strangest, weirdest, most unusual cookbooks you've ever seen?

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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]