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Whiskey Business: The Many Myths of Jack Daniel

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In Lynchburg, Tennessee, tales of Jack Daniel are taller than Paul Bunyan on a step stool. The question is, are any of them true?

The legend of Jack Daniel reaches all the way back to the moment he was born. Unfortunately, nobody knows exactly when that was. Some records show that Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel came into the world on September 5, 1846. His tombstone, however, says 1850. Strange, because his mother died in 1847.

All of this might not normally matter, but Jack's birth date is important to his overall legend, which proudly proclaims him "the boy distiller." So perhaps it's best we begin when Jack was first introduced to whiskey, which we know was early in life. Leaving home at a young age, Jack struck out on his own with nothing more than a handful of items valued at $9. He ended up at the home of Dan Call, a preacher at a nearby Lutheran church and the owner of a general store. There, Reverend Call also happened to sell whiskey that he distilled himself.

Jack quickly became determined to learn the craft. In fact, many storytellers claim the boy wonder bought the still from Call and began pursuing the business full-time at the ripe age of 16. If that legend is true, then Jack began selling his own Tennessee whiskey only three years later; the famous black labels on the company bottles proudly pronounce, "Established and Registered in 1866."

In reality, no documents support that myth. Jack may have been a teenage moonshiner, but he didn't register his business with the federal government until 1875. And by then, Jack would have been the more booze-appropriate age of 29.

The Maker Makes His Mark

Whatever legends exist, one thing is certain: Jack Daniel had a brilliant mind for marketing. Even as a youngster, Jack understood that if people remembered him, they would remember his whiskey. To that end, he decked himself out in a formal knee-length coat, a vest, a tie, and a wide-brim planter's hat, and was never caught out of "uniform" again.

Jack also established the Jack Daniel's Silver Cornet Band—a 10-member outfit solely devoted to promoting his whiskey across the countryside. With uniforms and instruments from the Sears & Roebuck catalog and a specially designed wagon for traveling, Jack made sure the band played every saloon opening, Fourth of July celebration, and political rally around.

But perhaps Jack's most brilliant decision concerned how to present his whiskey. From the beginning, Jack had been one of the first sellers to stencil his distillery name on his whiskey jugs. Next, he upgraded to round, custom-embossed bottles. But when a glass salesman showed him a prototype square bottle in 1895, Jack realized he'd stumbled upon something unique. The new bottles not only stood out from the crowd, but also had a shape that would prevent them from rolling around and breaking during transport. In addition, the square look reinforced the idea that Jack was a square dealer who put honest work and high standards first.

Whatever effort Jack Daniel put into his marketing, he never let quality slip. In 1904, the distiller decided on a whim to enter his whiskey in the taste competition at the St. Louis World's Fair. It came as little surprise when he won.

Lucky No. 7

jack-daniel1.jpgPerhaps Jack's greatest coup was the name he gave his high-quality product—Old No. 7. Naturally, nobody seems to know why. The official historian at the Jack Daniel Distillery today says it's the most oft-asked question on factory tours. As you might imagine, many theories have been advanced. Jack had seven girlfriends. Jack believed the number seven was lucky. Jack was honoring a merchant friend who owned seven stores that distributed Jack's liquor. Jack misplaced a batch of whiskey for seven years and, upon finding it, labeled it "Old No. 7."

None of these stories, however, makes as much sense as the less-than-sexy explanation from Jack Daniel biographer Peter Krass. Simply put, Jack was originally assigned a district tax assessment number of 7. But when the IRS consolidated districts within Tennessee, they arbitrarily reassigned him the number 16. Jack didn't want to confuse his loyal consumers, and he certainly didn't want to bend to the government, so he began labeling his bottles "Old No. 7." More than 125 years later, this act of defiance still makes his labels stand out.

Jack Without Jill

Jack Daniel never married. Some say it's because he was married to his work; others say it's because he never found a girl who measured up to his high standards. Or perhaps it's just that he was too busy catering to the greater Lynchburg population—throwing elaborate Christmas feasts, hosting exquisite costume parties in his second-story ballroom, and donating money to every church in Moore County.

But by all accounts, Jack was quite a ladies' man. He was a perfect dance partner, a polite conversationalist, and a fantastic gift-giver. Unfortunately, he also gravitated toward girls young enough to be his daughter (or even granddaughter). Once, Jack even asked for a woman's hand in marriage, but her father denied him—partly because Jack enjoyed keeping his own legend alive and always hesitated to reveal his true birth date. When Jack proposed, her father made it clear that any man unwilling to disclose his age was "a little too old for such a young girl."

The Early Bird Gets the Gangrene

Hard as it might be to believe, in the end, the great distiller actually died from getting to work too early. As the story goes, one morning in 1906, Jack arrived at his office before anybody else. He tried to access the company safe, but had a terrible time remembering the code. After a few frustrating minutes, he kicked the safe as hard as he could. He badly bruised his left foot and immediately began to walk with a limp. The limp only grew worse with time, and he later discovered the injury had led to blood poisoning. Then came gangrene, then amputation, and then, five years later, death.

It's not the happiest ending for the story, or the clearest cut, but it is the best, because it adds to the mystery and mystique of Jack Daniel. As they say, where facts cannot be found, legends fill the empty space—and that's perfectly fine for the keepers of the company flame. After all, as Jack himself believed, the more memorable his image, the more memorable his whiskey.

This article was written by Eric Furman, and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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