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Join the Club: the Story of Hiram Walker's Famous Whisky

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I've been a Scotch Whisky aficionado for a few years now, and if someone offers me a nice bourbon, well, don't mind if I do. But until recently, I didn't know much of anything about Canadian whisky -- until I was able to get my hands on a fancypants limited edition bottle of Canadian Club 30-year-old. Turns out 2008 was the company's 150th anniversary, so in commemoration they made 3,000 bottles of this smooth-drinkin' stuff (I got hand-numbered bottle number 93). I can't speak for the lower-shelf versions except to say that it seems to be the drink of choice for most of the characters in Mad Men, James Bond when he wasn't sipping martinis (it's featured in Dr. No and The Spy Who Loved Me), and Nick Nolte and James Coburn in Affliction (check out this hard-to-watch clip, in which Nolte uses a mouthful of the Club as a folk anesthetic before performing a little oral surgery on himself, then sits down to share a glass with his father -- very touching).

180px-Hwalkerpic.jpgWhat's more, CC has a fascinating history. Hiram Walker was a grocer and distiller who founded the distillery in 1858 under his own name, selling it as Hiram Walker's Club Whiskey. He owned land on either side of the Detroit River, but decided to build his distillery on the Canadian side, in what would come to be called Walkerville, the town that grew up around -- and was dependent upon -- his business. Walker planned out his town and exercised profound control over it, to the extent that when the local minister began preaching against "the evils of alcohol," Walker had him replaced. (Walkerville would later be incorporated into the city of Windsor, but for a time, Hiram Walker was essentially the king of his own town.)

Walker's competitors tried to use the fact that his company was located in Canada against him; when Walker's Club became popular, they forced the passage of a law requiring foreign whiskeys to state their country of origin on the label -- which is how Walker's Club became Canadian Club. But this change didn't hurt Walker's sales at all -- in fact, it boosted them -- and when another law was passed a few years later mandating that whisky labels include maturation time, it helped his sales even more.

(Most bourbons and American rye whiskeys at that time were matured for a year or less, whereas Walker's was aged in oak barrels for at least five.)

AlCaponemugshotCPD.jpgCanadian Club's popularity attracted some famous fans -- among them Queen Victoria -- and some infamous ones as well, like Al Capone. When Prohibition became the law of the land in the U.S. in 1920, Capone reputedly became one of the distilleries most important clients, bootlegging massive amounts of the stuff across the American border. It was rumored to have been among his favorite tipples.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]