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7 Super Expensive Alternatives to Grocery Store Brands

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Lots of us only ask one question when we head to the grocery store: what's on sale? (At least that's what I do.) If you're flush with cash, though, even buying mundane staple foods can turn into an exercise in conspicuous consumption. Let's take a look at a few super pricey pantry mainstays that will set you back a bit more than the store brands.

1. Milk Your Wallet for All It's Worth

Should you find yourself stressed out in Japan and in desperate need of a glass of milk, Nakazawa Foods has just the thing for you. In 2007 the company introduced Adult Milk, a special formulation of the white stuff that supposedly helps relieve stress. The (cash) cows that produce the product are milked once a week at dawn, which is allegedly the peak time for melatonin production in cattle. This carefully timed milking results in a product that has up to four times as much of the stress-relieving hormone as regular milk. The price tag is decidedly less soothing, though: over $40 for a quart.

2. Don't Skimp on the Olive Oil

What to do if your wallet is dangerously full and you want to drizzle olive oil on some bread? Order a bottle of Lambda. The extra virgin olive oil bills itself as "the most expensive olive oil in the world," and it retails for around $50 for a 500 ml bottle. According to the oil's maker, Speiron Co., its hand-picked olives are cold-pressed within eight hours of being picked from trees in Crete. The unfiltered finished product supposedly boasts an intensely fruity flavor and a very low acidity.

3. Sweetness Comes at a Price

Lambda made international news when famed London department store Harrods started offering the oil, but its shelfmate Life Mel Honey is no slouch, either. The honey, which goes for over $80 per 120g jar, is made in Israel by bees that are fed a strict diet of herbs that includes ginseng and Echinacea. It's more than just an expensive trend, though. The honey's makers tout it as the only honey that has been demonstrated in a clinical study to alleviate the side effects of chemotherapy. (Scientists later questioned the validity of these claims due to the tiny size of the clinical study.) Still, customers ranging from chemo patients to celebrities like Sienna Miller have snapped up the supposedly health-affirming honey.

4. Enjoy Your Coffee After a Weasel Does

400civetSure, the cup of joe you sip every morning wakes you up, but has it ever seen the inside of a weasel's stomach? If you're lucky enough to have an authentic mug of kopi luwak, it has. This Southeast Asian delicacy, which Miss Cellania mentioned last month in her round-up of creative uses for poop, is just like normal coffee, only it passes through the digestive tract of the Asian palm civet, a weasel-like critter, before it ever sees the inside of a pot. The result is a full-bodied coffee with little bitterness that can fetch anywhere from $100 a cup to $600 a pound.

Sure, it sounds gross, but kopi luwak devotees swear by the stuff. Farmed civets are fed fresh coffee berries, which they devour for their pulpy fruit, and the beans come out the other end a day or two later. During their stay in the civets' bellies, the beans interact with digestive enzymes that break down their protein structures and change their flavors. After the civet defecates the beans, farmers wash, dry, and roast them to make the world's priciest coffee. [Image by Wie146.]

5. Masa Super Premium: No Weak Cup of Tea

Just because you've sworn off coffee in favor of green tea doesn't mean that you have to keep your wallet closed. In fact, there's a green tea out there that makes kopi luwak look downright frugal. Last December, Japanese manufacturer Royal Blue Tea introduced a new product called Masa Super Premium. The bottled tea was made from rare handpicked leaves from Shizuoka Prefecture that were then infused for three days. The resulting liquid was poured into 750 ml wine bottles that were available for a cool $2,500 apiece.

6. Water with a Side of Bling

bling-h20If tap water just isn't doing it for you anymore, you can pick up a bottle of Bling H20. The trendy bottled water comes from a spring in Tennessee and undergoes a nine-step purification process that involves filtration and an ozone treatment. It's then poured into a 750 ml frosted-glass bottle adorned with Swarovski crystals. Want a bottle? It will set you back at least $40.

Of course, that's fairly inexpensive compared to a bottle of Hawaii Deep Marine's Kona Nigari seawater, a concentrate that fetches $33.50 for a two-ounce bottle. The water, which comes from 2000 feet beneath the surface off of Hawaii's coast, is prized in Japan as a dietary supplement that reduces stress, aids weight loss, and eases digestion. A 2004 USA Today story reported that the company was sending 80,000 of the two-ounce bottles to Japan each day.

7. No Small Potatoes

Think it's impossible to go broke eating potatoes? Think again. The French La Bonnotte potato can set you back over $300 a pound, which could lead to some awfully pricey French fries. The potato is harvested only during the first week of May on the French island of Noirmoutier and is so fragile that it has to be pulled up by hand. (This isn't the hardiest of plants; it almost went extinct between the World Wars and needs to be fertilized with seaweed.) Some years the yield is as low as 20,000 kilograms, which further drives up prices for the coveted tuber, which is noted for its slightly salty, lemony flavor.

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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]