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What does a Hamburger Grown from Stem Cells Taste Like?

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By Chris Gayomali

Two years ago, Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands set out to create a hamburger synthetically grown in a lab. That meant no actual cows, no bloody slaughterhouses, and just a fraction of the carbon emissions associated with cattle raising.

Today in London, the fruits of Post's laborious quest were finally put to the test, as the $330,000 petri-dish patty was tasted by food writer Josh Schonwald and Austrian food researcher Hanni Rutzler in front of a room full of reporters. The final verdict?

"There is quite some intense flavor," said Rutzler. "The look was quite similar to meat. It has quite a bite." Rutlzer continued:

The surface of the meat was crunchy—surprisingly. The taste itself was as juicy as meat can be, but different. It tastes like meat, not a meat-substitute like soya or whatever. [NBC News]

Schonwald was somewhat less effusive. "There is a leanness to it," he said. "The absence of fat is what makes it taste different… I would say it is somewhere on the spectrum between a Boca Burger [soy burger brand] and McDonald's."

Monday's tasting mixed the lab-grown meat with salt, egg, bread crumbs, as well as red beet juice and saffron to give the patty a more natural, reddish coloring. It was then fried in a pan and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.

Assembling the faux meat-patty was no easy task. Once the stem cells were extracted from a living cow via biopsy, thin slivers were meticulously arranged—layer by layer—to form the genesis of actual cow muscle tissue. Post says it takes about 20,000 tiny slivers just to create one 5-ounce hamburger.

While lab-grown meat is still a long way from commercial viability, Post says that eventually, one stem-cell sample could be used to create up to 20,000 tons of beef. And remember, cattle raising takes a tremendous ecological toll on the environment, and is largely considered to be unsustainable.

A 2006 United Nations report, for example, revealed that the meat industry generates "more global-warming greenhouse gases, as measured in CO2 equivalent, than transportation." And yes, a hulking percentage of the environmental the damage is wrought from what's emitted out of cows' butts:

When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

And it accounts for respectively 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain. [UN.org]

Post's project was funded largely by one mystery donor, who has remained in the dark — until now. On Monday, the project's backer was revealed to be none other than Google co-founder and Glass-futurist Sergey Brin. "If it succeeds there, it can be really transformative for the world," Brin told the Guardian. "If what you're doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it's probably not transformative enough."

So: Would you give lab-grown hamburger meat a try? Let us know below.

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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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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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