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History of the U.S.: Rum Punch

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Rum wasn’t invented in America, but it proved so popular in the colonies that it should qualify as an all- American drink.

It wasn’t the flavor; by all accounts, the batches produced in the seventeenth century were incredibly nasty and dangerous. That’s not surprising, considering the liquor was invented to get rid of the thick and sticky molasses that had to be drained from sugar crystals during the refining process. At first no one knew what to do with the stuff, but eventually someone realized that molasses contains enough sugar to allow fermentation; a little tinkering converted it to booze.

But not delicious booze: one early imbiber called it “a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.” If this sounds unappealing, consider that distillers might throw a dead animal or animal dung into the “wash” to speed up fermentation. They also used lead pipes in the still construction, sometimes poisoning heavy drinkers - which was mostly everyone. In Barbados, each colonist drank about 10 gallons of rum annually, while North American colonists averaged three gallons per year. That this foul liquor was the most popular drink in the colonies is evidence of the miserable conditions there, especially among poor colonists who came as indentured servants. Despite the occasional case of blindness or death, rum got you drunk enough to temporarily forget your miseries - and when you came to, you could start forgetting all over again.

Obviously this was incredibly bad for your health. In 1639, a visitor to Barbados recounted men so wasted they passed out on the ground and were eaten alive by land crabs. In 1707, a visitor to Jamaica estimated that rum killed over 1,000 colonists a year on that island alone (out of a total population of 7,000 white colonists). Colonial legislatures tried to control the sale and consumption of rum, with laws passed in Bermuda, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and even Barbados itself – but human misery trumped the law and rum continued making great if somewhat unsteady strides.

Fed by molasses imported from the Caribbean plantations, distilleries were established on Staten Island and Boston in the mid-1600s. These drastically lowered the price and increased the level of intoxication to new highs (or lows, depending on your point of view). In fact, rum played an integral part in the development of the American colonies, as New England businessmen invested their rum profits in new industries like textiles.

Looking for more fabulous content like this? You’re in luck - The Mental Floss History of the United States hits bookshelves near you on October 5th! If you pre-order, you’ll get three free issues of mental_floss magazine. Get all of the details over here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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