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5 Drinking Stories That Put Yours To Shame

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by Ian Lendler

Turns out, the best drinking stories in history are actually, well, historical. So raise a glass to your forefathers and marvel at these tales.

1. Admiral Edward Russell's 17th-Century Throwdown

Think you can drink like a sailor? Maybe you should take a moment to reflect on what that truly means.

The record for history's largest cocktail belongs to British Lord Admiral Edward Russell. In 1694, he threw an officer's party that employed a garden's fountain as the punch bowl.

The concoction? A mixture that included 250 gallons of brandy, 125 gallons of Malaga wine, 1,400 pounds of sugar, 2,500 lemons, 20 gallons of lime juice, and 5 pounds of nutmeg.

A series of bartenders actually paddled around in a small wooden canoe, filling up guests' cups. Not only that, but they had to work in 15-minute shifts to avoid being overcome by the fumes and falling overboard.

The party continued nonstop for a full week, pausing only briefly during rainstorms to erect a silk canopy over the punch to keep it from getting watered down. In fact, the festivities didn't end until the fountain had been drunk completely dry.

2. The London Brew-nami of 1814

The Industrial Revolution wasn't all steam engines and textile mills. Beer production increased exponentially, as well. Fortunately, the good people of England were up to the challenge and drained kegs as fast as they were made. Brewery owners became known as "beer barons," and they spent their newfound wealth in an age-old manner -- by trying to party more than the next guy.

Case in point: In 1814, Meux's Horse Shoe Brewery in London constructed a brewing vat that was 22 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter, with an interior big enough to seat 200 for dinner -- which is exactly how its completion was celebrated. (Why 200? Because a rival had built a vat that seated 100, of course.)

After the dinner, the vat was filled to its 4,000-barrel capacity. Pretty impressive, given the grand scale of the project, but pretty unfortunate given that they overlooked a faulty supporting hoop. Yup, the vat ruptured, causing other vats to break, and the resulting commotion was heard up to 5 miles away.

A wall of 1.3 million gallons of dark beer washed down the street, caving in two buildings and killing nine people by means of "drowning, injury, poisoning by the porter fumes, or drunkenness."

The story gets even more unbelievable, though. Rescue attempts were blocked and delayed by the thousands who flocked to the area to drink directly off the road. And when survivors were finally brought to the hospital, the other patients became convinced from the smell that the hospital was serving beer to every ward except theirs. A riot broke out, and even more people were left injured.

Sadly, this incident was not deemed tragic enough at the time to merit an annual memorial service and/or reenactment.

3. New York State of Mind: The Dutch Ingratiate Themselves to the Natives

In 1609, the Dutch sent English explorer Henry Hudson westward for a third attempt at finding the fabled Northeast Passage. A near mutiny forced him southward, and upon reaching land, he encountered members of the Delaware Indian tribe.

To foster good relations, Hudson shared his brandy with the tribal chief, who soon passed out. But upon waking up the next day, he asked Hudson to pour some more for the rest of his tribe. From then on, the Indians referred to the island as Manahachtanienk -- literally, "The High Island."

And not "high" as in "tall;" high as in "the place where we got blotto." Most people would agree that Manhattan has stayed true to the spirit of its name ever since.

4. The D.U.I. That Roused a Nation: Paul Revere's Medford Pre-Party

The key to a good drinking story is not really how much you consumed, but what kind of idiocy you engaged in afterwards. Idiocy like, say, sparking a war.

Turns out, Paul Revere's famous ride didn't start out as a hootin' hollerin' wake-up-the-villagers sort of trip. According to historian Charles Taussig, Revere embarked on the stealth mission from Charlestown to Lexington in order to warn Sam Adams (the beer guy) and John Hancock (the big signature guy) that the British were coming. But by chance, his route took him through Medford—the rum capital of America. At the time, rum was colonial America's number one commercial industry. So naturally, Revere stopped in for a brief rest at the house of Captain Isaac Hall, the leader of the local Minutemen and distiller of Old Medford Rum.

By the time Revere saddled up again, he'd sampled his fair share of Captain Hall's hospitality and "he who came a silent horseman, departed a virile and vociferous crusader, with a cry of defiance and not of fear." Not surprisingly, Revere was "pulled over" by the authorities (Redcoats) and detained for an hour before being released. So, it was actually Revere's drunken caterwauling that roused Adams and Hancock at about 4:30 in the morning, only half an hour before fighting broke out on Lexington Green. Unfortunately, history has no record of Revere's reaction when he awoke the next day (presumably nursing a hangover) and was informed of what he'd done.

5. Indian Elephants Raid the Liquor Cabinet

No wonder they don't sell beer at the circus. Apparently, elephants like to get wasted. In fact, an outpost of the Indian army in the jungle region of Bagdogra has been under attack ever since a local herd of elephants raided the base in search of food and discovered the soldiers' entire winter rations of rum.

Since then, the pachyderms have regularly raided the base for a drink and have smashed down all defenses put up by the army, including electrified fences and firewalls.

According to The Daily Telegraph, "An officer recently posted there explained that the elephants broke the rum bottles by cleverly curling their trunks around the bottom. Then they empty the contents down their throats. They soon got drunk, he said, and swayed around. They enjoy themselves and then return to the jungle."

This is by no means a singular incident, though. The animal kingdom is well-known for its ability to identify fruit that's begun to ferment. Anthropologists even believe this is how early man discovered alcohol -- by observing the strange behavior of animals on a fruit bender.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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