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How the Temperance Movement Almost Killed Root Beer

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Most people just relax on their honeymoons. Not Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires, though. Instead of lounging on the beach, he hit on a million-dollar idea. In 1875, Hires and his new bride went on a honeymoon to a New Jersey inn, and the newlywed became chummy with the innkeeper and his wife. The innkeeper's wife served the Hires a root tea from an old family recipe, and they both loved it.

Well, they loved most everything about it. The drink was delicious, but it was also a potent laxative, a small but important detail that probably limited its commercial appeal. When the couple got home, Charles Hires set about trying to recreate the flavor of the root drink without the laxative effects. Hires eventually came up with a dry mixture of roots and herbs that he could blend into a pretty tasty concoction.

Hires decided to market his beverage mix under the name "root tea." He made this decision in part because he wasn't a drinker himself and didn't want potential customers to think his soft drink had booze in it.

One of his mentors disagreed, though. Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister and the first president of Temple University, told Hires that he'd never make any money with something called "root tea." The blue collar miners in the area wouldn't be caught dead drinking a little tea. Now, root beer—there was a rough-and-tumble name that would catch on.

The Baptist preacher's advice to the teetotaling Quaker turned out to be sound. Hires gave away free mugs of root beer at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philly, and he was on his way to becoming America's first soft drink millionaire.

Then, something funny happened. The "root beer" name Conwell had suggested came back to bite Hires. In 1895, the Women's Christian Temperance Union turned its sights on Hires, partially because of the word "beer" in the name. Even though Hires himself didn't drink, the WCTU theorized that since his root beer was a sweet fermented beverage it must have some booze in it. (Chemistry apparently wasn't the WCTU's strong suit.) Thus, having a frosty root beer was no better than pounding back a godforsaken actual beer.

Instead of testing to see if there was actually any alcohol in Hires' root beer, the WCTU simply called for a nationwide ban on his product, which had become wildly popular in drugstores around the country.

Amazingly, the WCTU's vicious crusade against a non-alcoholic beverage sold by a teetotaler lasted for three years. Despite its tendency to base its policies on junk science, the WCTU was a pretty powerful national force at the time, and Hires' sales went into the tank. Eventually he got an independent lab to test his root beer's alcohol content, and the results arrived in 1898. Hold on to your hats, folks: the root beer was not the booze-rich syrup of Satan. In fact, the lab found that a bottle of Hires' root beer contained roughly the same amount of alcohol as half a loaf of bread.

The WCTU no doubt considered using this analysis as an excuse to begin a national boycott of bread, but in the end, the union decided to ease up on Hires. The soft drink magnate ran ads touting his root beer as an alcohol-free, temperance-friendly tipple, and sales soon soared well beyond their pre-boycott level. The next time you enjoy a root beer, remember Hires and the brave scientists who refused to cave to the temperance movement.

This story originally appeared in 2010.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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