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Dietribes: Wine

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Because I indulged heavily in the stuff last night, I'll let others do the eloquent speaking for me on the subject of this most beloved beverage:

"Wine makes a man better pleased with himself. I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others.... This is one of the disadvantages of wine, it makes a man mistake words for thoughts." "“Samuel Johnson (1709"“1784)

"Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, Sermons and soda-water the day after." "“Lord Byron (1788"“1824)

Being as this is such an expansive topic, I'll try and stick to some facts and figure you may not know about wine. To learn more about the basics, check out this site or, you know, this ole standby.

"¢ There are plenty of famous wine advocates besides Bacchus and Johnny "Wino Forever" Depp. In fact, one was a Founding Father. According Jay McInerney's New York Times review of John Hailman's Thomas Jefferson on Wine, "Jefferson was not only a connoisseur, but a proselytizer. He planted dozens of grape varieties at Monticello, and though he never succeeded in producing a vintage, he predicted that someday America would compete with France and Italy as a wine-producing nation. He believed wine was a healthier beverage than the whiskey and brandy that were consumed in such vast quantities in the colonies, and while in and out of office he pushed for lower import duties. 'No nation is drunken where wine is cheap,' he declared, 'and none sober where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.'" Jefferson even installed wine elevators that led directly to the wine cellar from his dinning room.

"¢ Another famous oenophile is Robert M. Parker, Jr., who started the aptly-named Wine Advocate, which has made him one of the most influential wine critics in the world. His naming the 1982 Bordeaux as one of the greatest vintages ever led it to become one of the most expensive wines to date. However, regarding cheap wine, anyone who's ever picked up a bottle (or three) of "Two Buck Chuck" might appreciate this article on Fred Franzia, "The Scourge of Napa Valley" (not to be confused with Franzia boxed wine).

sideways.jpg"¢ Of course, not all casual mentions of certain wines have led to positive outcomes. Merlot—once America's most preferred wine—was suddenly made uncool by the movie Sideways, where lead character Miles is the merlot-hating, pinot-loving wine snob who uttered the famous line, "If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any (expletive) merlot!" which led to an actual drop in sales of his most hated pedestrian wine.

"¢ Speaking of sales, wine consumption in the US has steadily been rising since the 1930s (when raw data was first tracked), with occasional dips here and there. As of 2006, an average American is said to consume approximately 2.39 gallons of wine a year, with a total of 716 million gallons sipped, and occasionally gulped, nationwide.

"¢ To cork or not to cork? That is the question at the heart of a new movement set on introducing screw caps to wine bottles instead of traditional corks. Read more about the debate here. If the idea of leaving the cork and corkscrew in the past unsettles you, find solace by perusing the Virtual Corkscrew Museum.

"¢ Where would a discussion of wine be without a nod to the maybe-not-classy-but-sure-good invention of boxed wine? Developed by an Australian family winery in the 1960s, the concept of bagged wine, a modern version of the traditional European wine 'bladder' (a leather pouch that collapses as the wine is poured, keeping air out) was born. "The bag-in-a-box concept took off. In 1967 Penfold Wines and C H Malpas patented a plastic, airless flow-tap welded into a metallised plastic bag. This innovation allowed the bag to stay in the box and be tapped like a traditional wine cask, and that's the version most popular today."

OK Flossy readers ... what are some suggestions you have for someone just getting into wine appreciation? What are your favorite (and most reasonably priced) wines? And finally, any good wine-related shenanigans to share?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

"˜Dietribes' appears every Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]