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5 Ways to Go Broke Getting Drunk

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Being something of a middlebrow Scotch aficionado myself (if you're in the LA area, join the club!), I know something about spending money on liquor. When you first develop a taste for the stuff and start building a little home collection, you feel OK about anything that doesn't come in a plastic bottle. But it doesn't take long for your palate to graduate from bottom-shelf 10-year-olds to the older stuff, and that's when your little hobby can become a big pain! Absurdly old and rare wines have been sought after by collectors for a long time, but rare liquors -- and especially rare whiskies -- have only come into vogue in the last decade or so. As a result of this new market, we're now starting to see distillers release breathtakingly expensive bottles in excess of 30 and 40 years old. If you want to go broke getting drunk, now's probably the best time in the history of whisky to do it. Here are five of the best ways to do it.

1. $75,000 - The Macallan Fine and Rare Collection, 1926, 62 Years Old

Whiskies this old were almost unheard of until recently, and now they're making headlines. Macallan being probably the best-known "quality" single malt Scotch in the world (Johnnie Walker is blended), it's no surprise that they would take the prize for the highest pricetag. The oldest and rare of Macallan's super-elite, 10,000-bottle "Fine and Rare" Collection, this particular bottle was originally listed for a mere $38,000, but after a bidding war a South Korean businessman ponied up the $75k. Those interested in tasting this rarest of the rare should head to Atlantic City, where the Borgata Hotel's Old Homestead Steakhouse sells it for a dizzying $3,300 per shot.

2. $11,995 - Macallan Fine and Rare Collection, 1939, 40 Years Old

The distinction for "oldest whisky you can still buy" also goes to Macallan, who describes this WWII-vintage dram as having "powerful wood flavors." After 40 years in an oak barrel, I'd be shocked if it didn't taste like old furniture! But those of you clamoring to spend what granny left you in one go, and cop a pleasant buzz whilst doing it, can order some here.

3. $160,000 - Chateau Lafite 1787

TJ.jpgOK, this is wine (is my bias showing?) but it's worth mentioning if only for historical interest. Unlike the whiskies mentioned here, this price refers not to a particular release of bottles belonging to one vintage, but to one bottle in particular. The wine inside it has probably long since turned to vinegar, but it's the bottle's former owner, and his historical significance, which makes the 1787 sought after. Handy with a pen, this particular owner labeled the bottle himself, and even scratched his initials underneath -- "Th. J." We'll give you a hint: he was one of the USA's founding fathers. (C'mon, people.)

4. $48,000 - Glenfiddich Rare Collection 1937

6 of the most expensive bottles of whisky ever -- sure to be considered chump change soon -- aren't available in Scotland. To find them, you'll have to head east, to the duty-free shop at Hong Kong's Chep Lap Kok Airport. That's right -- and if you're flying to the USA afterward, you may just have to stow it with your checked baggage and cross your fingers.

5. $58,000 - Dalmore 62 Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky

dalmore.JPGThe story here isn't so much about the whisky itself as much as its sale -- only 12 bottles were produced in 1942, one of which was sold in 2005 to a businessman in a London Hotel, who uncorked and finished it on the spot with five lucky friends. (Bitterness and envy proceeded to rock the Scotch world.) Here's hoping he used the company card.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]