Tony Abbott prepares for another ‘long, hard slog’ in 2015′

Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke to the media after a roads announcement in western Sydney. Photo: Simon BennettNew year brings new approach for Joe HockeyCalls to delay university reforms
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Prime Minister Tony Abbott predicts his government will face another “long, hard slog” in the Senate to pass budget savings but says he has not lost his drive for difficult policy reform.

Mr Abbott returned from holidays on Tuesday with a vow to push ahead with plans to introduce more price signals into the health system and deregulate university fees.

Mr Abbott also acknowledged there had been “vigorous discussions” within cabinet’s powerful Expenditure Review Committee about a proposed $20 rebate cut for short GP consultations.

Reports on Sunday said Treasurer Joe Hockey and former health minister Peter Dutton opposed the cuts but Mr Abbott overruled them during a heated exchange.

The government ultimately dropped the cut last week following a revolt from Liberal backbenchers, Senate crossbenchers and the Australian Medical Association.

“We’ve taken this particular element of a series of proposals off the table pending further consultation with the medical profession – that’s the sensible thing to do,” Mr Abbott said.

“We’ve got to protect our great Medicare system and over time that does mean more price signals in the system.”

Mr Hockey on Monday raised the prospect of people living until 150 when selling the case for cuts to government benefits and consumers paying a greater share of their health costs.

Mr Abbott said: “We got the fundamentals right last year. Yes, it’s been a long, hard slog with the Senate, and I dare say that long, hard slog will continue.”

The government’s higher education reforms – including a 20 per cent course funding cut and a full deregulation of fees – would be “front and centre” of the government’s agenda when Parliament resumes in February, Mr Abbott said.

Mr Abbott said former Labor MP Maxine McKew’s call for Labor to strike a compromise deal to boost university revenues showed the need for reform.

The government’s reform package is “very important for our universities, it’s very important for our future as a creative, dynamic society and economy and that’s why we are absolutely persisting with these important reforms”, he said.

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Where to eat andouillette: France’s stinky, urine-smelling sausage

A truly regional food: Andouillette.
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A truly regional food: Andouillette.

A truly regional food: Andouillette.

Weirdly, the smell turns me on, rather than off – it’s like a slow dance of death with a knife and fork. I’m talking about eating andouillette, an ancient French regional sausage made from the large intestines of the noble pig. Crisped under a grill and served with a smooth, velvety potato puree and a creamy mustard sauce, it’s utter heaven on a plate. That’s if you can get past the aggressive aroma of stale urine mixed with sweet spices and pork fat. Millions can’t, but those who can are hooked for ever more.

I’ve been obsessed with this pissy, stinky snag for 30 years now. Once I’d read about it, I had to have it. My first was in a bistro opposite the railway station in Lyons, a city known as “the stomach” of France.  It was milky, nutty, sweet, savoury, delicate and powerful. Back home, I studied andouillette and attempted to make my own. I bought pig’s intestines, cleaning the long, snaking tubes of pig’s innards by sending great whooshes of water through them that sprayed half the house and most of my wife with their smelly contents. It guaranteed that I would henceforth seek out those better qualified to do so.

Luckily, a group of French andouillette lovers formed the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique (AAAAA) in 1988, to protect standards and to honour those establishments serving the true, original andouillette. The “Five A’s” above a restaurant’s doorway have always meant more to me than Michelin’s “Three Stars”. I have chased those little AAAAA’s throughout Paris and across France, and most recently to Troyes, a crazy-beautiful little medieval town of cobble-stoned streets and gothic churches in the Champagne-Ardennes district, where the andouillette tradition remains strong.

There, I studied with andouillette master Christophe Thierry of Charcuterie Thierry, home of the finest artisanal andouillette since 1969. I learnt to cut the intestines into long strips and wind them into loops like skeins of wool, then thread them onto a little string and pull them with great sleight-of-hand into an intestine casing to create the pale, lumpen sausage of my dreams. It is this labyrinthine structure that virtually explodes onto the plate when the skin is pierced that is the sign of the true andouillette. For three days, I literally stuffed my own intestines with intestines at every meal, necessitating countless bottles of the local Champagne, Rose de Riceys, and beer.

I fear for the future of the andouillette, however, because the people who love it and fight for it are disappearing. It belongs to another age, when respect, quality, tradition and pride meant more than celebrity and status; when the provinces of France were like different countries with their own cuisines and cultures, and when truly regional foods existed.  TIPS FOR SAUSAGE-SEEKERS

* Go to Paris and track down a genuine AAAAA-rated andouillette made by the renowned Christophe Thierry in Troyes. Try Racine, 8 Passage Panorama 2nd, and Le Verre Vole , 67 rue de Lancry, 10th.

* Take the train from Gare de L’Est in Paris and make the 90 minute trip to Troyes to check out where it all began. Worship at the shrine of Charcuterie Thierry, 73, avenue Gallieni, Sainte-Savine. Then go straight to Au Crieurs de Vin, a great little natural wine bar run by Jean-Michel Wilmes and Nicholas Vauthier at 4 Place Jean-Jaures, and order your andouillette. Die happy. See en.tourisme-troyes上海龙凤419m; aube-champagne上海龙凤419m.

* Can’t get to France? In  Melbourne try the excellent andouillette Parisienne with mustard sauce at France-Soir, 11 Toorak Rd, South Yarra. See france-soir上海龙凤419m.au

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Terror alert level lifted for Australian police amid attack fears

Police could be the target of a terror attack, according to the Australian Federal Police. Photo: Jason SouthThe terrorism threat level for potential attacks on police has been changed to “high” following the emergence of fresh intelligence, police have said.
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A statement by the Australian Federal Police on Tuesday said that the threat level for police is being brought into line with the rest of the community following the raising of the alert by the government to “high” in September 2014.

“As a result of intelligence information and discussions with our partners, the terrorism threat level against police is assessed as high, which is commensurate with the broader threat level for the community,” the statement said.

Despite recent arrests and an active effort by state and federal police to disrupt known terrorism networks, the dangers that led to the raising of the general threat level in September remain, the statement said.

“The security environment remains increasingly complex and challenging. Recent events in France, Canada and Australia serve as a sobering reminder of the risks associated with policing.”

Two police officers were killed by the gunmen who attacked the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Two Melbourne police officers were also attacked and wounded by a young man Numan Haider late last year.

“While relatively small, there are increasing numbers of Australians who are connected with or inspired by overseas terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with the intent and capability to conduct an attack against police,” the AFP police statement warned.

It added that police across the country had “thoroughly reviewed their security and risk management strategies and made necessary adjustments to their protective security policies and practices”.

The policies remain under review, the AFP said.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn said she issued a warning to every police officer in the state on Tuesday asking them to be more vigilant both on and off duty.

Officers have been told to keep social media profiles discreet, while security has been ramped up at local police stations and officers have been told they must log in to mobile tracking devices in police cars whenever they leave the station.

Western Australia’s acting top cop says he will no longer hang his blue shirt in the back of the car when driving to and from work, due to the raised terror alert.

A statement issued by Victoria Police said the state’s acting Chief Commissioner Tim Cartwright had written to all police officers, protective services officers and police public servants urging them to “be vigilant and pay extra attention to their own safety and security and that of their colleagues and their premises”.

Mr Cartwright had given instructions and advice to make sure that police security was as good as it could be and that there was a smooth flow of information to counter-terrorism operations and investigations, the statement said.

It urged people not to be “unduly concerned” and to “go about their lives as normal”.

Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said there were no specific threats to Queensland police or the wider community in that state.

“I believe that we have taken appropriate action, as has every other jurisdiction in Australia today, to ensure that we remind our officers of the need to ensure their safety because our officers need to be safe in the way that they go about their job so they can [can keep] the community safe and secure,” he said.

With Rachel Olding, Brendan Foster

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Nike designs fluoro range for male tennis stars

Spain’s Rafael Nadal sports pink. Photo: Eddie Jim Spain’s Rafael Nadal sports pink. Photo: Eddie Jim
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Spain’s Rafael Nadal sports pink. Photo: Eddie Jim

Spain’s Rafael Nadal sports pink. Photo: Eddie Jim

Loud: Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis in pink and green. Photo: Andy Brownbill

Brilliant: Nick Kyrgios in fashion-conscious white and green. Photo: Hannah Peters

Dazzling: Australia’s Bernard Tomic’s eye-catching top. Photo: Mark Kolbe

Undimmed: Swiss Roger Federer went for bright green. Photo: Clive Brunskill

Loud: Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis in pink and green. Photo: Andy Brownbill

Brilliant: Nick Kyrgios in fashion-conscious white and green. Photo: Hannah Peters

Dazzling: Australia’s Bernard Tomic’s eye-catching top. Photo: Mark Kolbe

Undimmed: Swiss Roger Federer went for bright green. Photo: Clive Brunskill

Loud: Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis in pink and green. Photo: Andy Brownbill

Brilliant: Nick Kyrgios in fashion-conscious white and green. Photo: Hannah Peters

Undimmed: Swiss Roger Federer went for bright green. Photo: Clive Brunskill

Loud: Australia’s Thanasi Kokkinakis in pink and green. Photo: Andy Brownbill

Brilliant: Nick Kyrgios in fashion-conscious white and green. Photo: Hannah Peters

Dazzling: Australia’s Bernard Tomic’s eye-catching top. Photo: Mark Kolbe

Undimmed: Swiss Roger Federer went for bright green. Photo: Clive Brunskill

It was a case of a banging LCD-fuelled-rave rudely interrupted by a game of tennis.

Australia’s top-ranked male tennis players took to the Australian Open court on Tuesday night wearing top-to-toe fluoro in various shades of eyecatching – or eyewatering, or eyemelting colour. Pick your own adjective.

“It’s exciting seeing young fit tennis players dressed for a Wham! revival,” opined Elle Australia deputy editor Damien Woolnough upon seeing the clothing choices of Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic, Thanasi Kokkinakis and co.

“The fluoro trend is perfect for centre court and distracting attention away from people who insist on wearing face paint in the crowds,” Woolnough said.

The Nike-designed range, which will be worn by the brand’s huge troupe of performers at the Open, is apparently inspired by Melbourne’s laneway street art – and designed to make an “unapologetic visual statement” and give wearers a competitive advantage via “disruptive patterns”.

Flag-bearer Nick Kyrgios managed to look as though his whole lower half had been dipped in glow-in-the-dark paint, with matching fluoro boots and shorts, and a shirt that graded from fluoro green (the more fashion-forward observers are speculating it’s actually a shade of chartreuse) through to a nice sensible white. On top, a fashionably-grooved eyebrow.

Bernard Tomic sported a shirt that combined green, pink, and a pattern reminiscent of those Magic Eye eye-puzzles that, if stared at for long enough, reveal a hidden picture. At deadline, that picture remained stubbornly hidden.

But it was five-set thriller Thanasi Kokkinakis who really stole the show, pairing fluoro green and pink with a fantastic pair of forearm sweatbands.

Nike are using the tournament to advertise the new range.

“The spring 2015 Nike Tennis collection was conceived to utilise striking colour choices and disruptive patterns as a competitive advantage for performance tennis,” says the brand’s website.

A spokeswoman for the brand revealed Nike’s design team visited Melbourne a year ago to begin work on the palette for this year’s tennis range, where they became enamoured with street art as the perfect symbol of the city.

“This constantly-evolving art which is an perpetual state of change, perfectly reflected the drive and newness found in the city as a whole.

“The chrome trim on Roger and Rafa’s shorts elevates their look and style, originating from the bright sun reflected in the city around the time of the tournament.

“The faded print that appears on court we named Tag, was inspired by the tags thrown up around the city.”

For his part, young Kokkinakis, fresh from a win over the 11th seed Ernests Gulbis, can afford to be a little cocky.

“They were like, we only give this to a few. If you’re up for it, wear it,” he said. “I wore the stripes last year, but that was nothing compared to what I wore this year. … I was like, ‘surely in this outfit I’ve got to get the win’.”

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Highway vigilante confiscated car keys from tourists in New Zealand

The Lindis Pass close to where the altercation took place. Photo: WikiMedia CommonsAn Australian family was left stranded on a desolate strip of road in New Zealand after a local man pulled them over and confiscated their hire car keys because he says they almost caused a head-on collision.
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The Queenstown man pursued the family of seven’s rental car after he allegedly saw them try to overtake someone and nearly cause a collision.

The man, who asked not to be named, performed a U-turn and sped off after the tourists. He then flashed his lights and beeped his horn but said the Australian tourist had “no intention of stopping”.

“I like to think I know what I’m talking about,” the New Zealander told the Otago Daily Times. “It’s just hard to put it into words just how close it was.”

Deciding to take things into his own hands, he forced the car to stop. After snatching the car keys from the ignition, the New Zealander told the driver he would call police when he had mobile phone reception.

The tourists left stranded on the remote Lindis Pass on Sunday evening had no food, water or mobile phone reception and were not sure how far they were from the nearest town.

The driver of the hire car, who also asked not to be named, holds a full Australian driver’s licence. He said the incident should never have happened.

“We were just driving [from Queenstown to Lake Tekapo] and all of a sudden someone came and blocked us and just ran to us and pulled the key out of the car,” the man said. “We were stranded there without doing anything [wrong].

“There is no right for any other person to stop someone else’s car with a family and just take the key and make them stranded on the road … anything could have happened.”

But the New Zealand man held a different viewpoint, saying he was just doing his bit to prevent a certain car crash.

“As far as I see it, I just took the ammunition out of the gun,” he said. “A car’s a weapon in the hands of an idiot like that.

“Would you rather have distressed kids sitting in the back of the car, or dead kids splattered across the windscreen?”

A Gold Coast resident, Mason Brown, was driving with his own family when he saw the family inside the rental car try to flag him down for help.

“They were visiting from Sydney, so they weren’t sure why the person had pulled them over and taken their key,” Mr Brown said. “So they were just really freaked out about what had happened.

“No other traffic had stopped to help. It was raining and one of the rental car’s electric windows was down, there were three young children and an elderly diabetic man among the group of seven. The wife of the driver was very distressed.

Mr Brown said the New Zealand man’s actions had created other hazards and effectively inflamed the situation.

“I’ve heard that people were hailing this person as a hero but … I just think the way that it was handled was not particularly appropriate,” he said.

“Because of where it was, it was incredibly dangerous and stressful for that family and for other drivers. The car was off the road but it could have been more safely pulled off the road.”

The Sydney tourist will appear in the Alexandria District Court onJanuary 28 charged with careless use of a motor vehicle.

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Court allows Irish tourist Barry Lyttle to move closer to hospital where brother Patrick Lyttle recovering after Kings Cross fight

Barry, Oliver and Patrick Lyttle. Photo: Facebook Barry Lyttle reunited with his father Oliver, outside Central Local Court, after being released on bail earlier this month. Photo: Nick Moir
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Irish tourist Patrick Lyttle regains consciousnessBail granted for Irish tourist Barry LyttleBarry Lyttle weeps in court’Brothers in arms’: Trip of a lifetime turns to despair

Irishman Barry Lyttle has been allowed to move closer to the hospital where his brother Patrick is recovering following their disastrous fight outside a Kings Cross nightclub earlier this month.

Barry Lyttle appeared in the Downing Centre Local Court on Tuesday supported by his girlfriend, his father Oliver Lyttle and several other supporters.

The 33-year-old allegedly punched his 31-year-old brother in the head following a minor disagreement at about 3am on January 3.

Patrick fell backwards and hit his head on the footpath of Bayswater Road. He underwent surgery and was placed on life support at St Vincent’s Hospital, where he has since come out of a coma.

Barry has been charged with recklessly causing grievous bodily harm and earlier this month was bailed to live with an aunt in Blacktown, in western Sydney.

His lawyer, Chris Watson, said Barry wanted his bail conditions varied to allow him to live closer to the hospital in Darlinghurst.

Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson was told the Director of Public Prosecutions has elected to prosecute the case in the District Court, meaning Barry could face higher penalties if found guilty than if the matter was held in the Local Court.

Barry was breath-tested after the incident and returned a low-range reading, meaning he would not fall under the state’s controversial mandatory minimum sentence for drunken “one-punch” assaults.

Barry and Oliver had been in Australia for just five days to visit Patrick, who had been travelling around Australia for six months.

Oliver was a professional boxer in northern Ireland, fighting at least eight middleweight bouts in the 1960s.

Judge Henson agreed to Barry’s change of residential address. He will reappear in court next month.

Outside the court, Oliver said of Patrick: “He’s coming along very well” and “he’s communicating”.

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Mapping travel routes: Why it’s every traveller’s obsession

A worldly obsession: Maps.
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A worldly obsession: Maps.

A worldly obsession: Maps.

I have a world map on my wall. My best mate, Green, has a world map on his wall in London. Both maps are covered in cotton lines and small red pins depicting flights and destinations, and both are updated zealously according to strict rules. For instance: Pins may be placed on a map after a visit has occurred OUTSIDE an airport. Otherwise a TRANSIT is deemed to have occurred and may only be represented by a headless pin.

Long haul flight paths depicted on the map MUST conform to actual paths taken by civilian aircraft. Exaggerated lines will be censured. Map projection is NO EXCUSE. Cotton shall be black and adhere to a modest and uniform gauge. Exuberant or unnecessarily manifest twines are CONTRARY to the spirit of the enterprise.

My wife, who is not really part of this, regards the map obsession rather unkindly as a “bunch of wank”. But it has history – over 39 years to be precise. Green and I met aged 11. He had a map on his bedroom wall with pins recording where his dad travelled for work; I copied the concept to record some minor travels of my own including a holiday to the US and a £10-Pom migration experiment by my parents when I was a baby. (To this day, these lines are derided by Green as “pre-natal travels”.)

After university I went backpacking with Green. Something of a weird savant when it came to airline scheduling, he rose to the challenge of booking insane non-direct routes to make the lines more interesting. He practically wrote his name over the Malay Peninsula – a minor cat’s cradle that’s still evident on my map.

By our late 20s, Green had gone to work for airline ground staff and I’d moved to Australia. The maps entered a new and dangerous phase as each of us tried to plot more extravagant lines, plant more exotic pins and ultimately satisfy one question: whose map looks better?

Long before selfies and emails, I actually took a photo of mine, got it developed and posted it to London. On opening the envelope, Green took one look and let it fall to the floor. He stepped over the photo with its single line going off-map into Antarctic territory muttering, “you bastard”.

He got the last laugh, though. At the new Millennium, I was back in London working on the travel desk of a London newspaper and secured him a job as a travel writer which saw him travelling more than ever. I left after three years but he stayed on for 14 – and today his map is sagging with great ropes of cotton, groaning with pins, a testament to the 135 countries he’s visited and the 1.5 million miles he’s clocked.

Green and I turn 50 this year and we still crow over a new pin, or grouse when a trip retraces over an old flight path, in fact it’s the rare conversation that doesn’t include the wary question, “Did y’get a new line?” Truth is, the maps are our legacy, and not because they record our travels. It’s because they chart an extraordinary friendship. TIPS FOR THE MAP-MINDED

■ There are different ways of projecting a 3D sphere onto a 2D surface and all affect how your lines appear. (I use the 1855 Gall stereographic.)

■ If you do heaps of trans-Pacific crossings out of Australia, consider a map with Australia  (180 degrees longitude) at the centre. Greenwich-centred maps will necessitate lines going off-map on one side to reappear on the other. Boring.

■ Beware the “hub pin calamity”. It’s when your home pin turns into a maypole, stressing the pin; if it comes out, taking all those lines with it, you’re screwed. Not unrelated, beware children, pets, and wives who like to dust.

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Triple J Hottest 100 contenders: The most played songs of 2014

Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk featuring Bruno Mars. Hot favourites … Canberra duo Peking Duk.
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Chet Faker performing live in concert at Civic Theatre, Newcastle, last year. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

The Presets were the fourth most played, according to AirCheck.

From Mark Ronson to Chet Faker to Taylor Swift – it seems everyone under the sun has an opinion on who should take out the Triple J Hottest 100 countdown.

But a list of the station’s 100 most-played songs – obtained by Fairfax Media – provides an insight into what its programmers wanted listeners to hear over the past year.

The song that commanded the most airtime, High by Australian electronic music duo Peking Duk, was also the favourite to be voted No.1 in the Hottest 100, according to a leading online betting agency.

The track, with vocals by Nicole Millar, was played 225 times between January 27, 2014 and January 18, 2015. The next most-played songs were Create / Destroy by Sydney band Art vs. Science and Seasons (Waiting On You) by US synth-poppers Future Islands, which each received 185 spins.

Another popular Hottest 100 contender, Talk is Cheap by Melbourne’s Chet Faker, was played 141 times and ranked 56th, alongside New Zealand singer Lorde’s Yellow Flicker Beat.

The data was compiled by AirCheck, which monitors music and commercials on more than 50 radio stations across Australia using a patented audio recognition system. It was based on Sydney’s Triple J frequency 105.7FM, but the station broadcasts the same content nationally (on delay in some cities).

Amid a debate about the ongoing relevance of Triple J, the list does demonstrate Triple J programmers’ preference for local, alternative music.

Half of the 10 most-played songs, and 58 of the top 100, were performed by Australian artists. And there were few appearances by “top 40” mainstream artists – Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk, for example, was not among the 100 most-spun tracks.

Also absent from the list was American pop princess Taylor Swift, who has been the subject of an online campaign (#Tay4Hottest100) to have her hit Shake it Off catapulted to the top of the Hottest 100. Triple J has already confirmed the song was not played on the station in the past year.

The Australia Day countdown has been criticised for a dearth of solo female performers. The AirCheck list shows this is also a factor in the station’s programming – though the seventh most-played track was How Much Does Your Love Cost? by 19-year-old indigenous singer-songwriter Thelma Plum. Megan Washington, Lana Del Rey and Queensland singer Ayla also made the list.

Triple J most-played songs, January 27, 2014 to January 18, 2015:

1. High – Peking Duk ft. Nicole Millar – 225 spins

 

=2. Seasons (Waiting On You) – Future Islands – 185 spins

 

=2. Create / Destroy – Art vs. Science – 185 spins

 

4. Goodbye Future – The Presets – 181 spins

 

5. Streamers – Wave Racer – 176 spins

 

6. Fall In Love – Phantogram – 173 spins

 

=7. Luna Bombay – Bicycle Club – 168 spins

 

=7. How Much Does Your Love Cost? – Thelma Plum – 168 spins

 

=7. I Got U – Duke Dumont ft. Jax Jones – 168 spins

 

10. Cannibal – Silversun Pickups – 167 spins

 

Source: AirCheck

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Eight of the world’s weirdest foods

Most travellers would have been asked the same question: what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten overseas?
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It’s a good one. After all, if you’ve clocked up a few different countries you’ve invariably been faced with some interesting foodstuffs that you’ve been expected to devour. And hopefully you’ve at least given them a try.

In their home country they’re not considered weird in the slightest; however, to the first-time visitor, they’re at best a little frightening, and at worst incredibly bizarre. These are the strangest I’ve sampled. Cuy, Peru

“Cuy” is the Peruvians’ onomatopoeic name for the humble guinea pig (say the word out loud – it’s like the sound a guinea pig makes). It’s also something of a national delicacy, particularly in the Andean region of the country, where it’s served deep-fried and whole, sometimes positioned in a manner that looks like it might be about to scurry off your plate. The taste? A little tough and gamey, but not bad. Though not something that’s likely to take off in Australia any time soon. Warthog, Kenya

There’s a strange dichotomy involved in eating game in Africa, one that requires you to enjoy looking at beautiful animals by day and then enjoy dining on those same beautiful animals by night. If you can get past that, however, you’ll have the chance to feast on such delicacies as kudu, springbok, zebra and ostrich. Also: warthog. Ignore your misgivings than stem largely from having watched The Lion King (“When I was a young warthog…”) and tuck in – this is one tasty meat, similar to pork but with some added gaminess.  Cactus, Mexico

Eating cactus isn’t weird in the slightest – I just had no idea you could do it until I visited Mexico. There, on the streets of the nation’s capital, I was presented with a taco filled with cactus flower, also known as prickly pear, or in Spanish, “nopal”. It’s a juicy, meaty fruit that goes surprisingly well with Mexican flavours, and in particular wedged into a tortilla and drizzled with salsa. Frog porridge, Singapore

On the streets of the somewhat dodgy Geylang district in Singapore, food fans crowd around cheap plastic tables to feast on one of the local delicacies: frog porridge. Soupy rice is slurped; bits of frog are chewed; bones are strewn across tabletops and pavements; faces are wiped down with towels. This dish is a mix of Cantonese-style congee and fried frogs legs and, if you can get past the initial weirdness, it tastes amazingly good. Snake, Vietnam

I didn’t set out with the intention of eating snake when I was in Hanoi, but rather was swindled into it by a young guy who wanted to “practice his English” while introducing me to some local cuisine. Ah, you live and you learn. Still, this pricey encounter did allow me the chance to sample some snake spring rolls, which tasted a lot like any other spring roll, really. Turns out deep-frying things takes away most of the individual flavour. Which, in the case of Vietnamese snake, may have been a good thing. Crickets, Thailand

These unlikely superfoods are fried up and served whole in marketplaces across Thailand, often displayed in baskets next to slightly larger fried friends such as locusts and cicadas. While you can keep big gooey insects like the latter ones all for yourself, thank you very much, the big surprise about crickets is that they’re actually pretty tasty. A little bit nutty, and a little bit salty. The world’s next great beer snack? You never know. Scorpion, China

Down at the touristy Wangfujing Snack Street in Beijing, you can eat pretty much any strange foodstuff that your heart desires. Sheep testicles? Starfish? Seahorses? Finally, here is your chance to indulge in some of the weirder things in life. While I left those delicacies to more hardy eaters, I did try the deep-fried scorpions, which, as per the snake entry above, are so heavily deep-fried as to taste like nothing but salt and crunch. And that was kind of a relief. Chicken sashimi, Japan

One thing you learn as a cook in Australia is that raw chicken is bad. Like, really bad. Give yourself salmonella bad. Poison your friends at a dinner party bad. So to be faced with a dish of intentionally red-raw chicken in Japan is something of a shock. Is this really OK? Turns out, of course, that the Japanese know exactly what they’re doing, and as long is the chicken is extremely fresh, you can enjoy it raw. Although it’s not guaranteed that you’ll enjoy it. (For the record, it tastes – ahem – like chicken.)

If you like the sound of these dishes, and you’re game, take a look at them in the gallery above.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten on your travels? Post your comments below.

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Mario lives: researchers inject artificial intelligence into Nintendo’s leading man

Soft: Mario’s innocence is lost as researchers inform him of the consequences of his jumping on enemies’ heads. Photo: YouTube / AAAI Video CompetitionSuper Mario’s newest adventure is not about saving a princess, conquering Bowser or even completing a round of golf. It’s about being empowered to break free of the shackles of player control, become self-aware and sate his endless hunger for coins and monster-stomping.
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The University of Tubingen in Germany has built a custom clone of the timeless video game which it uses to teach and converse with an artificial intelligence (AI) version of Mario, who in turn develops a personality and behaviour of his own.

The Mario Lives! project, created as an entry for the annual AI Video Competition, shows the chubby mushroom-lover coming to grips with the mortality of his enemies (“If I jump on Goomba, then it maybe dies”, he says after being instructed to obliterate the enemy and report on what he learns) and analysing potential future scenarios to plot jumps without falling to his death.

 

The AI also learns to react to the researchers playing with his emotions, that is lowering his “hunger” value (which he must rectify by “eating” coins) or making him “curious” (in which case he explores the environment and learns the values of various power-ups and game features).

There is something unnerving about the usually-friendly character reporting a feeling of unhappiness or naively admitting to having no knowledge of the effect his jumps might have on others, but at least he’s trapped within the confines of the game and not making Skynet-style judgements on the effect of jumping on his human masters. Yet.

Mario’s fame and the predictability of his games’ design have made him a popular subject for research and computer projects, particularly among game modders, tool-assisted speed-runners and amateur level designers (in fact, the popularity of the latter is such that Nintendo will this year release an official level design game for its Wii U console called Mario Maker).

While the Mario Lives! project shakes things up by removing the need for a player to help Mario on his quest at all, this is not the first time the Japanese-Italian plumber has been used to show off innovations in AI planning, learning and potential futuristics.

At the 2013 SigBrovik conference – an event for programming geniuses and computational tricksters to show off their more humorous projects – scientist Tom Murphy demonstrated an application that can teach itself how to play simple video games by analysing scores, win states, fail states and other variables.

When applied to Super Mario Bros., the AI eventually mastered the first level and – although it was initially confused by just about everything – it even figured out some exploits that would be impossible for a human player to pull off.

 

The software didn’t work for all types of games however, as evidenced in its application to Tetris, in which the AI inevitably decided the only way to succeed was to pause the game and never resume it.

As for the future of cognitive modelling and video game agents, Mario Lives! researcher Fabian Schrodt tells The Vergethat the team’s next project will pair Mario and Luigi together so they can learn from each other and further distance the AI from its supposed human masters. Stephen Hawking was right to be afraid.

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