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The Stories Behind 11 Famous Cocktails

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When you belly up to the bar, how well do you know the cocktail you're ordering? The ingredients of these famous tipples may be familiar to bar patrons the world over, but some of their origins are as debatable as those of the Flaming Moe. Here's a quick rundown of where some of your favorite drinks entered a glass for the first time.

1. The Martini

Aficionados disagree, sometimes violently, on the correct ratio of gin to dry vermouth that makes a transcendent martini, and the debate over the true origin of the martini can be just as contentious. Some claim that it's simply a dryer version of an older cocktail called the Martinez; Martinez, California, the birthplace of this cocktail, thus stakes its claim to the title of birthplace of the martini. Others postulate that the drink's name simply comes from Martini & Rossi, an Italian company that's been exporting its vermouths to the U.S. since the 19th century. Still others claim that the drink was created by and named for Martini di Arma di Taggia, the bartender at New York's Knickerbocker Hotel, although there's evidence that the cocktail may have been invented well before he started mixing drinks.

2. The Manhattan

The venerable Manhattan, a blend of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, is another cocktail that scores of people claimed to have invented. It likely dates back to the New York bar scene of the 1860s, but there are also some more intriguing (though almost certainly too good to be true) tales about its origins. According to one of these legends, Jennie Churchill threw a party at the Manhattan Club in 1874 to celebrate Samuel J. Tilden's victory in New York's gubernatorial election. An enterprising bartender created a new cocktail for the event, which he dubbed the Manhattan in the club's honor. Both of these characters would go on to bigger things. Churchill soon gave birth to a son, Winston, and Tilden made a presidential run in 1876. (Although Tilden won the popular vote, he lost out to his Republican opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes. At least the cocktail saved Tilden from obscurity.)

3. The Bellini

This delightful wine cocktail, a blend of white peach puree and Prosecco, has a well-established origin. Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice's beloved Harry's Bar, started mixing up the fruity tipples sometime between 1934 and 1948. The pink drink reminded him of the color of a saint's toga in a painting by Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini, so Cipriani named his concoction in honor of the painter.

4. The Kir

This popular French aperitif of crème de cassis and white wine has long been a favorite in France, but it didn't get its name until after World War II. Felix Kir, the mayor of Dijon from 1945 to 1968, was a huge fan of the cocktail, and whenever he entertained visiting dignitaries, he'd invariably serve them the drink. Kir did such a good job pushing the mixture onto his visitors that it eventually became inextricably linked with his personality, and that's why the cocktail bears his name today.

5. The Daiquiri

If you're an American mine employee stuck working in Cuba, what do you do? In the case of intrepid engineer Jennings Cox, you start creatively mixing drinks. The mixture of rum, lime, and sugar supposedly sprang to life in 1905 when Cox and some of his fellow Americans were hanging out in a bar in Santiago, Cuba. By mixing together these handy ingredients, the Americans found a tasty tipple, and it eventually worked its way back to the states.

6. The Tom Collins

This refreshing summer drink owes its name to a 19th century hoax. In 1874, hundreds of New Yorkers heard some bad news while they were out on the town: a certain Tom Collins had been besmirching their good names. Although these people didn't know Mr. Collins, they were outraged that he would slander them, and they often set out to find the rascal. Of course, the root of the hoax was that there wasn't really a Tom Collins, but that didn't keep aggrieved parties from searching him out. To deepen the joke, bartenders started making the citrus cocktail that now bears the name, so when searchers asked for Tom Collins, they could instead find a thirst-quenching long drink.

7. The Cosmopolitan

Long before Sex and the City helped bolster the popularity of the cosmo, various bartenders were staking their claims as the cocktail's "true" creator. According to various stories, the drink originated in Minneapolis, South Beach, San Francisco, Manhattan and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Since the drink is basically just a kamikaze with a simple addition of cranberry juice, it's possible that bartenders in all these locations came up with the drink independently, so we may never know exactly who was responsible for putting a glass in Carrie Bradshaw's hand.

8. The Sazerac

Although it's not the most widely known drink, the Sazerac is both delicious and one of America's oldest cocktails. The blend of rye whiskey, bitters, sugar, and absinthe or pastis dates all the way back to the 1830s when Creole pharmacist Antoine Peychaud came up with the recipe and began serving it. The Sazerac became so popular that Peychaud's apothecary business quickly became better known as a place to get a revitalizing potion. The Sazerac is currently in the middle of something of a resurgence. Kentucky distillery Buffalo Trace has marketed two very good straight rye whiskeys under the Sazerac name, and last year the Louisiana House of Representatives proclaimed that the drink is the official cocktail of New Orleans.

9. The Negroni

Count Camillo Negroni gets credits for creating this aperitif around 1919. As the story goes, Negroni really loved to throw back an Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, and club soda), but he wanted a little extra zing in his glass. He asked a bartender to replace the club soda with gin to give the mixture some added kick, and the Negroni was born.

10. The Black Russian

Surprisingly, containing vodka is the only thing this cocktail has to do with Russia. Bartender Gustave Tops created the drink in 1949 or 1950 while working at the Hotel Metropole in Brussels. Tops supposedly first mixed the combination of Kahlua and vodka for American socialite Perle Mesta, who was serving as the ambassador to Luxembourg at the time.

11. Long Island Iced Tea

It might not actually contain tea, but at least the Long Island part of the name is accurate. This spring break favorite is fairly young as cocktails go; it's only been around for about 32 years. Rosebud Butt, a bartender at the Oak Beach Inn in Hampton Bays, invented the drink in 1976, so if you ever need to find a patron saint of terrible hangovers and nights spent falling off of barstools, Rosebud may be your man.

All images courtesy of iStock

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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