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People Ferment The Darndest Things: Indigenous Alcoholic Treats

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No matter where you call home, there's a good chance that one of your neighbors is busy making some kind of booze. Brewing, distilling, and winemaking are nearly universal activities, and folks will ferment just about anything.

1. If you want to try traditional chicha, go to Peru or Bolivia, where women chew corn flour and then spit it into bowls. Enzymes in their saliva help break down the sugars in the corn. Chicha tastes tart and can be white, yellow, red, purple, or even black depending on the corn used. Today you can buy a liter of this favorite drink of the Incas for about 10 cents in bars called chicherias.

Kumiss.jpg2. Kumiss is a Mongolian specialty made from horse's milk. It's not very alcoholic, though—only about 2%—so you're going to have to drink a lot of kumiss to get a buzz. But that's exactly what nomadic Mongolians do, downing gallons of the stuff during high kumiss season. We may be hearing more about kumiss in the future: Japanese scientists have discovered that it can dramatically lower your cholesterol.

3. Sahti is an ancient Finnish beer still being made in the traditional way on farms. It is filtered and spiced with juniper branches, and every August there's a brewing competition that helps keep this national homebrew alive. The winner is called the "Holder of the Haarikka," with the haarikka in question being ceremonial wooden bucket used—you guessed it!—for drinking sahti. Commercial breweries have also gotten in on the action: In Finland you can also go out and buy a three-liter box of sahti.

Read on for eleven more indigenous alcoholic beverages from around the world...

masato.jpg4. Manioc, also known as cassava and yucca, is a worldwide staple, especially in South America, where many cultures have developed beers from this tuber. You'd think it would be dangerous, because manioc contains cyanide, but local women know how to remove the poison through careful preparation. In Peru, manioc beer is called masato. In Guyana, it's parakari. In Suriname, it's cassiri and is said to be warm, sour, and dense. In Ecuador, it's nihamanchi. The locals drink it like water, up to four gallons a day for men. They also make a high-alcohol version for ceremonies.

Shakparo.jpg5. Shakparo is a sorghum beer from Benin, West Africa, where every kitchen contains a brewery. Producing this sour, fruity brown-pink beer is an essential skill that every mother teaches to her daughter as a rite of passage. Though it's men who drink most of the shakparo, a woman was assured a certain level of status if she knows how to make it. Like many of the other beers mentioned here, shakparo is now produced commercially and has been celebrated by folks with gluten allergies because it contains no wheat.

And here are nine other beverages for your next booze fest (including root beer for the kids and teetotalers)...

"¢ Europeans settling on the American frontier were used to drinking beer every day, but they didn't have key Old World ingredients like barley or malt. So instead they used roots to make root beer, from which our familiar soft drink has descended.

"¢ Hard apple cider was a staple drink on the American frontier, consumed by adults and children alike. Johnny "Appleseed" Chapman was planting apple trees for cider, not for eating. We know this because apple trees grown from seed produce funky and often inedible apples, and the best way to salvage them is to make cider. If you want to grow edible apples, you do so by grafting from existing trees.

somersetperry.jpgPerry is a hard cider made from pears.

Ginger beer was originally alcoholic. It was quite popular in the U.S. until Prohibition stamped it out.

Arrack is a Sri Lankan liquor made by fermenting and blending the nectar of coconut palms. A "toddy tapper" climbs from tree to tree on ropes harvesting the nectar.

Brem is a rice wine native to Bali.

Wine made from the fruit of the saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert plays an important role in Native American rituals.

Banana beer is popular throughout Africa.

Tesquino, the yellow, harsh corn beer of the Tarahumara people of Mexico, is considered a highly spiritual drink. It's supposed to scare out the "large souls" out of the body, leaving the "little souls," which, they says, explains why drunk people act childish.

So, what exotic cocktails have gotten you drunk?

Weird Science Correspondent Chris Weber is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com.

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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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Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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