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What Country Eats the Most Turkey?

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by Nicholas Nehamas

Did you get your Thanksgiving turkey yet? We hope so, or someone from Mexico or China could be chowing down on your drumstick.

Turkey, you see, has moved well beyond the pilgrim’s platter.

On a per capita basis, Israel might actually consume more turkey than the U.S. Yes, Israel.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Israelis ate 28.9 pounds of turkey in 1999, the last year for which statistics are available. That same year Americans ate 17.6 pounds of the mouthwatering fowl. Today we put away 16.1.

Because of land and climate constraints, red meat costs a lot of money in Israel. Turkey has become a popular alternative and is often served in pita bread as a shawarma.

In the U.S., we’ve known about the bird’s succulent white meat since the 17th century. The Aztecs and other native cultures also relied on Meleagris ocellata—a different breed from our North American Meleagris gallopavo—for meat and eggs. And the United Kingdom has long celebrated Christmas with a dinner of roast turkey.

But the rest of the world didn’t start catching on until the 1990s, according to Joel Brandenberger, president of the National Turkey Federation, a DC-based lobbying group.

“In 1990, the year before I came to work here,” Brandenberger says,”the turkey industry exported 53.9 million pounds of turkey. This year the industry exported 728 million pounds, a record. What’s equally as significant about that is, in 1990, about one percent of all the turkey produced in the U.S was exported. Now it’s more like 13 percent.”

The main beneficiary of all that extra turkey is Mexico, which imported almost 400 million pounds from the U.S. last year.

“I was in a supermarket in Guadalajara a couple of years ago,” Brandenberger remembers, “and I went to the processed meat case and the volume of pavo products you’ll find there is incredible.” (Pavo is the Spanish word for turkey)

China (82.8 million pounds), Hong Kong (37.9 million), Canada (22.6 million), and the Dominican Republic (15.2 million) round out the top five importers.

A Bird on the Rise

Brandenberger points to several factors in turkey’s global popularity. The U.S. government has expanded free trade by signing agreements like NAFTA and granting permanent normalized trade relations to China. Also consumers in the developing world can afford to buy more meat as their economies improve.

And Brandenberger says Americans' own pickiness has helped his industry grow.

“Americans for a lot of reasons tend to prefer white turkey meat . . .  breast meat,” he explains. “But most of the rest of the world prefers dark meat. So the items that Americans are least interested in then become available for trade, and that’s helped us export aggressively.”

The industry has also had success promoting its product as a useful alternative to other meats. When China’s pork industry underwent a major crisis in 2007, Brandenberger says the USDA showed the Chinese how turkey could be used as a substitute in many of their processed meats.

Chinese annual consumption doubled to .09 pounds per person in 2008 before halving again the next year. After Israel and the U.S., the top per capita consumers of turkey are Canada (9.2), the European Union (7.9), Brazil (4.2) and Australia (3.7).

You can learn more about global turkey consumption by clicking on the map below.

Every now and again, we'll republish a story from our friends at Latitude News. They do good work — check them out! They're on Twitter and Facebook, too.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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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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