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That Other Time Someone Tried to Get the British to Eat Horses

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If you haven’t heard by now, there’s an ongoing problem in the UK and continental Europe where food products labeled as containing beef actually turn out to have surprise horse meat in them. If history had played out a little differently, this wouldn’t be a scandal, and Brits eating horse meat would be about as newsworthy as Americans eating cheeseburgers. 

In the mid-1800s, a guy named Algernon Sidney Bicknell started a group called the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food. The name should leave little doubt as to what their goal was. In 1868, Bicknell and the Society hosted a banquet at a London hotel where 150 guests were served horse soups, horse sausages, horse steaks, horse roasts, and almost anything else the cooks could think to make from horse. Not long after that, Bicknell released his manifesto, Hippophagy: the Horse as Food for Man, and outlined what he saw as horse meat’s economic, cultural, nutritional and gastronomical benefits.

Bicknell and his horse sausages probably couldn’t have come on to the scene at a more perfect time. According to historian Chris Otter, in a paper on Bicknell’s “dietary revolution,” England was in the throes of a meat famine. Demand was rising, and so were prices, but the domestic supply couldn’t keep up and the international supply chains were weakened by breakouts of livestock disease in mainland Europe, and primitive refrigeration technology. If you wanted meat, Bicknell reasoned, horse was about to become the best, and maybe only, game in town.

Still, Bicknell’s crusade pretty much crashed and burned. Butchers didn’t get on board with selling horse and the people didn’t get on board with eating it. Across the English Channel, though, things shook out a little differently. 

Cheval Délicieuse

Just a few years before Bicknell’s banquet, an old ban on consuming horse meat was lifted in France, and French scientists started their own hippophagy movement. The anatomist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and veterinarian Emile Decroix made many arguments for horse consumption that echoed Bicknell: horse meat was healthy and French meat consumption was too low, it was moral to not let animals die in vain and economically sound to use what meat was available. 

Their arguments began getting press in the country’s science and medical journals and then in the mainstream newspapers, gaining support among social reformers as a cheap way of feeding France’s urban poor. With all the attention, backlash soon followed. Some Catholics objected based on a religious taboo and an old Papal decree against horse consumption. Others made the “slippery slope” argument that if horse meat caught on, the French would soon be eating dogs, rats, and any other animal they could get their hands on. 

Despite the opposition, the sale of horse meat was legalized by the summer of 1866 and a horse meat stall was authorized in a Paris market. Within a few years, there were 23 horse butcher shops in the city alone, and business was brisk. In 1874, the economist Armand Husson suggested that this horse meat boom relied on a few factors: the high price of other meats, the falling threshold of disgust with horse and the support of scientific expertise.

Back in Britain...

Bicknell had some of that going for him in England—he touted horse meat’s cost effectiveness, and backed up his nutritional claims with scientific evidence—but just couldn’t gain a foothold. Decroix even offered 1100 francs and a medal to whoever could open the first horse butchery stall in London, and the prize was never claimed. Just a decade later, all the effort would be unnecessary. The birth of refrigerated ships made it easier to import “regular” meats to the British Isles, and turning to horses no longer had to be contemplated.

Why did Bicknell fail where the French hippophagists succeeded, sending the two countries on diverging dietary paths? Both the British and French had religious/cultural objections to eating horse, and in both countries the horse had a central role in the agrarian and early industrial economy as a source of transportation and power, worth more in the field than on a plate. The difference, Otter argues, was that France’s scientific and medical elite and its adventurous butchers and chefs supported horse meat and convinced the public to make it part of their diet. 

These factors, he writes, made horsemeat “available and tolerable, which consequently altered equine economics, making the sale of old horses for meat more profitable…relatively tight links between scientific expertise, butchery and popular taste allowed hippophagy to gain economic and cultural momentum in France, meaning that the taboo on horsemeat was partially shattered.”

The British hippophagy movement didn’t enjoy the same high-profile support from laboratories and kitchens, and Bicknell and his Society alone weren’t enough to turn the average diner on to horse, even if they made the same case that the French did. Otter also suggests some “dietary nationalism” was involved too. The British might have rejected hippophagy, in part, because the French (historically, not their best pals) embraced it. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]