Friday, June 30, 2017

The Brain as Computer: Bad at Math, Good at Everything Else

Modeling computers after the brain could revolutionize robotics and big data

Wooden Hanger

From: Archie McPhee's Endless Geyser of Awesome

Canadian artist Maskull Lasserre just unveiled an awesome new sculpture that the Department of Astonishing Optical Illusions wants to hang in their office. For his piece entitled Schrodinger’s Wood, Lasserre carved the core of the trunk of an Ash tree to make it appear that the ends of the trunk were just barely held together by a thick rope that’s fraying as though from the weight of the tree as it hangs suspended by a chain.

Click here to view more photos of the finished piece as well as process photos.

Visit Maskull Lasserre’s website to check out more of his creations.

Won't Be Long Before They're Flying

Yesterday and this morning have been great for screen-captures over at the osprey nest cam.  I've been lucky with timing, and had fun in Photoshop, so here's a few.  

 Mom and the kids.


Rivet is usually second of two to feed, but today he grew a pair and told his sister to buzz off when dad brought a fish in.  (I don't really know the sexes of the chicks - nobody does - but this is how they seem to me.)

click images to enlarge

 "I can't believe I just did that!", sez Rivet

And last, but far from least, this great GIF posted by Craigor on the live chat.

 Rivet gets some air-time.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

These Guys Are Bums... Fearless Frank's All-Beef Dogs RULE!

We Taste-Tested 10 Hot Dogs. Here Are the Best.

The 10 hot dogs that were part of the taste test, clockwise from top left: Applegate, Nathan’s, Oscar Mayer, Wellshire Farms, Boar’s Head, Trader Joe’s, Niman Ranch, Ball Park, Brooklyn Hot Dog Company and Hebrew National. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times 
The New York Times Food department hasn’t taken a close look at hot dogs in some time. Back when hot dogs were on every list of foods to avoid — alarming additives, questionable cuts, salt and fat galore — home cooks didn’t want to know too much about what was in them.

But cooks are different now, and so are hot dogs. We want to know that what we’re eating is as good as it can be. Hot dogs are made from better ingredients, with fewer additives.

One thing hasn’t changed: Billions of hot dogs will be eaten at cookouts this summer, and serving them is one of the easiest ways we know to make people happy.

And so, we present our first official hot dog blind tasting.
The terms were as follows:

First, the hot dogs would be cooked on a gas grill until well browned.
Hot dogs on the gas grill, cooked until well browned. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Next, each would be tasted plain to evaluate the intrinsic qualities of the hot dog: seasoning, beefiness, snap, texture.

Last, each would be eaten in a bun with the judge’s preordained condiments — the same for each dog, to keep the flavor profile consistent.

This important final step would allow us to assess the melding of meat and bread, sweetness and spice, salt and juice that makes up a perfect hot dog. The bun should hug the hot dog closely; there should be enough juice in the hot dog to keep the whole package together; condiments should complement the hot dog, not overwhelm it.

And the judges? Some may say that enlisting three native New Yorkers — Sam Sifton, Melissa Clark and me — amounted to putting a thumb on the scale.

All-beef hot dogs are part of the city’s food DNA. (So are forcefully expressed opinions and a general skepticism about the food of Other Places.) Nationally popular pork-beef specimens like red hots, Vienna sausages, Coneys and weenies wouldn’t have a chance.

But the question became moot as I researched the contenders, and it quickly became clear that only all-beef franks could be invited to this event.

Most of the high-quality hot dogs available to home cooks in the United States are made with all beef. (Hot dogs with lots of added fat and fillers often use multiple meats.) An overwhelming majority of the producers of organic, all-natural and humanely raised meat make only all-beef hot dogs. Restricting entry to all-beef hot dogs also leveled the playing field, making it possible to compare like with like.

The hot dog’s immediate ancestors, traditional wienerwursts and frankfurters from Germany and Austria, were made from combinations of pork, beef and sometimes veal. Beyond the meat, frankfurters have a trace of smoke, a touch of garlic and a hum of warm spice from paprika, coriander, clove or nutmeg. These subtle seasonings are what make a hot dog a hot dog.
The three judges were natives of New York, where all-beef hot dogs are part of the city’s food DNA. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Within the all-beef subset, we were ecumenical, including all the major national brands as well as some organic, kosher and small-batch outliers. Ten dogs made the final cut.

Some sausages were great alone in the first tasting, but glitchy in the second when they were placed in the bun. The Niman Ranch hot dog was so thick that — as Melissa astutely observed — it threw off the ratio for meat, condiment and bun. The Oscar Mayer entry was surprisingly small and sweet, inspiring nostalgic fits about childhood dinners of beanie weenies. I wanted to eat the smoky, slim Brooklyn Hot Dog Company sausage with a knife and fork alongside some parsleyed potato salad, as you might in Frankfurt, but not on a bun.

And others were simply tasteless, oversalted or peculiar. “Not a hot dog,” was Sam’s scathing assessment of those hapless contenders.

The detailed results are below, with notes from the judges.

The Favorites

Only Wellshire Farms, a brand sold only at Whole Foods markets, and Hebrew National, a stalwart, had what we considered a true and familiar hot dog profile: an identifiable beefy taste, a texture that’s soft but not mealy, a noticeable juiciness and a thread of warm spice flavor. Wellshire Farms got the edge because of its slightly larger size, coming in first in our tasting.

From left, the Hebrew National hot dog, topped with mustard and relish, and the Wellshire Farms hot dog, topped with mustard, were the taste-test winners. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times 
WELLSHIRE FARMS PREMIUM ALL-NATURAL UNCURED BEEF FRANKS, $7.99 FOR 8 “Smoky, herby — is this fancy?” was Melissa’s immediate response. We all loved its levels of garlic and spice.

HEBREW NATIONAL KOSHER BEEF FRANKS, $6.29 FOR 7 “Classic,” Sam declared. “The people’s hot dog.”

The Middle of the Pack

These hot dogs were good over all but missed greatness because of one attribute: The sausage was either too sweet, too salty, too smoky or too tough.

APPLEGATE THE GREAT ORGANIC UNCURED BEEF HOT DOG, $9.99 FOR 8 “Not bad but the salt balance is off — and where are the spices?” I wrote in my tasting notes. “The kid hot dog par excellence.” This was the only grass-fed hot dog that the panel liked.

The Brooklyn Hot Dog Company’s hot dog, smoky with good beef flavor. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times 
NATHAN’S FAMOUS SKINLESS BEEF FRANKS, $5.59 FOR 8 A mild, juicy frank that “melds in a nice way” with bun and condiments, Melissa said. But sweeter than we would have liked.

OSCAR MAYER CLASSIC BEEF UNCURED FRANKS, $5.99 FOR 10 “Superfragrant, smoky and sweet,” Sam said. But the small size of these dogs was disappointing.

BOAR’S HEAD BEEF FRANKFURTERS ORIGINAL FAMILY RECIPE, $5.29 FOR 8 Good texture and great beefiness, but the casings toughened on the grill; this would probably make a great boiled dog. According to Sam, “Not a snap so much as a crust.”

THE BROOKLYN HOT DOG COMPANY SMOKED AND UNCURED CLASSIC BEEF DOGS, $9.99 FOR 6 The smokiest of the bunch, with good beef flavor. But at almost a foot long, it did not seem like a backyard barbecue hot dog to me.

NIMAN RANCH FEARLESS BEEF FRANKS, $6.99 FOR 4 “Seems very pure and beefy,” Sam said. It was also substantial, which seemed appropriate for our most expensive dog, but it didn’t fit in standard buns.  (Well, standard buns drool.) Get a nice sourdough sandwich roll! - ed.)

The Unpopular

The Ball Park hot dog had noticeably less flavor and more fillers than any of the others in our tasting. The Trader Joe’s frank suffered from a rubbery, unfamiliar taste.

TRADER JOE’S ORGANIC GRASS-FED UNCURED BEEF HOT DOGS, $5.99 FOR 6 “Funky, and not in a good way,” I noted. There was smoke and coriander, but the flavor profile didn’t match up with “hot dog.”

BALL PARK UNCURED BEEF FRANKS, $4.99 FOR 8 “‘Flaccid’ is not a good word to associate with sausage, but that’s what it is,” Sam said. Melissa put it more gently: “Soft and mortadella-like” in texture, but “where did the taste go?”

Avoid Palm Oil. It's Bad for You Anyway

The Amazon's new danger: Brazil sets sights on palm oil

Brazil’s ambition to become a palm oil giant could have devastating social and environmental impacts if the move is not carefully managed, say experts

The Guardian  by in Brasília and Heriberto Araujo in Pará
Jorge Antonini takes a palm kernel in his hands and slices it open. Squeezing it between his fingers, the kernel oozes the oily liquid found in hundreds of everyday products, from cakes to chocolate spread.
The scientist is standing on a government-owned farm near the Brazilian capital of Brasília. Here, he and a small group of colleagues from Embrapa, the powerful state-owned agricultural research agency, are trialling different methods of growing oil palms to improve yield.

 Journalist Tom Levitt holding a palm kernel. An oil palm bunch. 

The project Antonini runs might be small scale but the government’s aims are anything but. Already a global agricultural powerhouse and the world’s largest exporter of beef, coffee, maize, soya and sugar, Brazil now wants to muscle its way into the lucrative palm oil trade.

“We want to compete with Indonesia and Malaysia,” says Antonini, Embrapa’s head of palm oil research, referring to the world’s two dominant producers of the commodity. Between them, Indonesia and Malaysia account for more than 80% of global production.

This might sound like a lofty ambition considering the country’s current production volumes. But Brazil’s palm oil industry is expanding, with potential for even bigger future growth.

The amount of land given over to oil palms doubled in Brazil between 2004 and 2010. It is forecast by Abrapalma, the body which represents palm oil producers in Brazil, to double again between now and 2025. Almost half of the land area of Brazil is suitable for growing oil palm, according to researchers, making it the number one country – they say – in terms of suitable land.

Such growth offers potential benefits for Brazil’s rural economy. But with most of this suitable land in the wildlife-rich, forested Amazon region in the north of the country, campaigners and observers fear Brazil’s ambitious plans for its palm oil sector will fuel a surge in landgrabbing, conflict and deforestation.

These fears have been reinforced by the current uncertainty in Brazilian politics. The former president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, while current president Michel Temer has been charged with corruption. In the midst of this turmoil, WWF is reporting that new legislation could rollback protections on the Amazon rainforest.

The Beginnings 

Brazil’s palm oil expansion dates back to 2010 under the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who launched a programme to map areas suitable for oil palm plantations and provide finance for farmers to start growing the crop. 

With projected revenues of more than $90bn by 2021, the global palm oil market is a major income and development opportunity for rural Brazil. A farming family could increase its net income fourfold, the Brazilian government has estimated, by switching from staple crops such as cassava to oil palm.

Embrapa’s trial site is in the central Cerrado region of Brazil, a savannah landscape of extensive soy and cattle production which could be converted to producing oil palms – in some places, at least – if the trials are successful.

So far, however, palm oil production has been almost exclusively limited to the Amazonian state of Pará. This region offers an ideal climate of heat, sun and rain throughout the year, as well as cheaper land prices than the more agriculturally-developed, drier and more seasonal Cerrado region.

Abrapalma estimates that 207,000ha out of a total of 236,000ha of oil palm plantations in Brazil are in Pará, with the industry providing jobs for around 20,000 in the state and three times that number benefiting from indirect employment.

Embrapa researcher Lineu Neiva Rodrigues says Brazil could use palm oil to create biodiesel for the domestic market and eventually become a leading exporter.

Palm oil production.

But growth in this market is limited, with the current demand for biodiesel mainly in the southern part of Brazil, thousands of kilometres from Pará, says Marcelo Brito, president of Abrapalma and CEO of one of the country’s biggest palm oil producers, Agropalma.

The stall in the biodiesel sector was highlighted by Petrobas, Brazil’s biggest energy company, which entered a joint venture with Portugal’s Galp Energia in 2010 to produce and export palm oil from Brazil. However, the company announced last year it would be exiting the biofuels sector and focusing on oil and gas.

Deforestation and Land Grabbing

Even if the biofuels sector doesn’t take off as Embrapa hopes, Brito says palm oil production in Brazil will continue to expand to meet demand from the food and cosmetics industries. Brazil is currently a net importer of palm oil but, even with demand in the country growing, Brito expects it to be self-sufficient within the next one to two years. 

This expansion could put at risk huge tracts of forested land in the Amazon region, home to the world’s largest tropical rainforest and at least 10% of global biodiversity, say conservationists.
Pará lost almost 8% of its forest cover between 2001 and 2015 to agriculture, according to Global Forest Watch:

Tree cover loss (marked in pink) in the Amazonian state of Pará in 2015. Source: Global Forest Watch

But palm oil could offer a more productive land use if it replaced extensive, low-yielding, livestock farming, says Rhett Butler, founder of the widely-respected Mongabay conservation website.

“The opportunity in Brazil is converting cattle pastures to oil palm, but the fear is converting forest to oil palm,” he says.

Such fears have already been realised over the border in Peru. A report from the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2015 linked large commercial companies to illegal deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon for oil palm cultivation. 

In Brazil, scientists have criticised moves to allow oil palm plantations to count towards compliance for restoring and protecting forested land, saying they host few native species.

As well as deforestation, there is a social impact too. The expansion of palm plantations in the state has led to a rise in land prices and disputes, says Elielson Pereira da Silva, who is researching palm oil production at the Federal University of Pará.

While there is not evidence of palm oil leading to an increase of violence in the state, researchers say growing interest in the sector could escalate a current spate of land-related killings in the Amazon region, already labelled a “humanitarian catastrophe”.

In 2016 the number of killings linked to land conflicts in Brazil reached 61 – the highest number since 2003. In May, a local farm leader in Pará was reported to have been murdered in front of her grandson in a dispute over land ownership on a former oil palm plantation. 

Even for those farmers who sign up to long-term supply contracts with palm oil companies, the benefits are not necessarily clear cut.

“This is a kind of land grabbing, because the farmer can’t change their production during this period,” says Pereira da Silva. “[Palm oil] companies promise them up to 4,000 reais (£970) per month but, in many cases, the farmers get indebted with the company that provides them with supplies, such as fertilisers and seed.”

Preventing a Wild West Expansion 

Brito says Brazil should focus on positioning itself as a niche producer, where palm oil does not contribute to deforestation. “I think Brazil will never be a big palm oil producer, we will remain a medium producer.” 

Other countries, he says, would remain more attractive for investors because of less restrictive labour and forest protection legislation.

A gradual, rather than rapid, expansion of oil palms in the country, says Butler, would be the safest option for protecting against conflict and environmental degradation. “The opportunity is very large in Brazil, but we don’t want a wild west type expansion.”

  • All photos are credited to Heriberto Araujo except the top photo (credit: Agropalma), the photo of the hand holding a palm kernel (credit: Tom Levitt), the Unsteady Growth chapter heading (credit: Agropalma) and the photo of the forest burning in Pará state (credit: Nacho Doce/Reuters)