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Nectar of the Gods: Alcoholic Mythology

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Here are a handful of stories from around the globe that illustrate the long-time love of alcohol that connects the world.

The Kegger of the Gods

Norse mythology tells of Aegir, the ale brewer of the gods, who held a big party for honored guests every winter. The party was held inside a great hall whose floor was littered with glittering gold, providing enough light that no fires were necessary for illumination. The special beer for the event was brewed in a giant cauldron given to him by Thor and served in magical cups that refilled as soon as they were empty. He even had a couple of loyal servants who distributed food and otherwise cared for the guests' needs. The shindig was the highlight of the social season and all the gods attended. However, like so many off-campus college parties, alcohol and animosity could sometimes spoil a perfectly good evening.

According to the Poetic Edda, a collection of mythological poems, the party started off great, with everyone drinking and eating and telling stories. As they sat down for the big feast, the inebriated guests offered praise to the two lowly servants, Fimafeng and Eldir. The snobby rich kid of the gods, Loki, in his drunken arrogance, took offense to the gesture, feeling the servants were not worth such accolades, and killed Fimafeng. The others kicked him out of the party for being a jerk, but he returned shortly after, demanding to be shown some respect and allowed back at the table.

At first everyone ignored him, but he guilt-tripped Odin, king of the gods, into letting him return. But Loki couldn't leave well enough alone. He insulted the other guests, challenged them to fights, called into question the fidelity of everyone at the table, and pulled old rumors and skeletons out of the closet to “defend himself” against “attacks” from the other gods, who were simply asking him to shut up. This went on until Thor, the starting defensive lineman of the gods, arrived fashionably late and threatened to break every bone in Loki's annoying body. Knowing that Thor would actually do it, Loki decided to leave while he still walking.

Loki didn't get away unharmed, though. Skaoi, one of the goddesses he insulted that night, caught up with the god and tied him to a rock. Above his naked body, she hung a poisonous snake, whose fangs dripped acidic venom into a small dish, held up by Loki's wife, Sigyn. Whenever the dish filled, she had to pull it away and pour the venom on the ground. This meant the venom would occasionally drip onto her husband, causing him immense pain. According to legend, Loki's violent writhing is what causes earthquakes. Of course this could have all been avoided if Loki had simply known when to say when.

Rum Warms More Than the Soul

Rum has been known to do some very strange things to a person, many of which sound a lot like when a person is possessed by Ogoun, a warrior spirit in the voodoo religion. When Ogoun takes over a man, the original personality is replaced by one that is often completely different. For example, he will become brash and antagonistic, which is fine because Ogoun is supposedly bulletproof. These possessed men will wildly wave a machete, smoke cigars, chase women, and demand rum by saying, “Gren mwe fret,” which translates to “My testicles are cold” (presumably the rum will warm them). Some have even been known to wash their hands in flaming rum without showing any signs of pain - at least, we can assume, until all that rum they drank wears off. Thankfully they don't use the flaming rum on other, chilly body parts.

Put Saint Brigid on the Guest List

We've all heard about Jesus turning water to wine at a wedding, which is impressive, but it's a parlor trick when you consider the feats of the Catholic Saint Brigid. Her abbey, the first convent in Ireland, was visited by a cadre of Cardinals who were owed every hospitality, including an open bar. When the abbey's kegs had run dry, Brigid told the other nuns to dip their pitchers into a nearby bathtub, and serve the men the water. Reluctantly they agreed and were amazed to find that the water turned to beer by the time it touched the guests' lips.

She pulled the same trick with the members of a leper colony she was looking after. When the men complained they had no food, Brigid blessed a bathtub and the water became hearty beer for the men to drink. Finally, it has been said that one barrel of beer that she sent to a neighboring town was able to fill 17 more barrels of the same size. With skills like that, it's a good bet she was really popular at parties.

B.A.C. (Bunny Alcohol Content)

Part of the ancient Aztec mythology is centered around the Ometochtli, a family of deities who represent the excess in life. The matriarch of the family, Mayahuel, was the goddess of fertility, but also gave man the agave plant, used to make tequila and mezcal. Dad was Patecatl, the guy who discovered fermentation, as well as peyote, a natural psychotropic drug. From their union spawned the Centzon Totochtin, the 400 rabbits of drunkenness.

The Aztec drink of choice was pulque, a syrupy, pulpy alcohol made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. Pulque was available to almost everyone, but most people were cut off after four cups. The elderly, on the other hand, had earned as many cups as they could handle. The priests were also able to drink as much as they wanted in order to commune with the gods - and work up the nerve to commit human sacrifices. A believer's drunkenness was measured on a scale of rabbits, with two or three rabbits being a petty good buzz, all the way up to 400, which we can only imagine meant, “poke him with a stick and see if he's dead.”

So the next time you're doing tequila shots with friends, instead of saying “three sheets to the wind,” perhaps you could say you're “at least 10 rabbits in” and pay a little honor to Mayahuel, Patecatl, and their 400 kids.

Bacchus' Girls Gone Wild

Bacchus, first known as the Greek god Dionysus, was the God of Wine. His early followers were women who held secret meetings called Baccanalia. These Baccanalia were really little more than an excuse to get hammered on wine, a drink forbidden to women at the time, though there were religious rituals praising Bacchus involved. Later, men were allowed to join, and the baccanalians started to hold their "meetings" five times a month.

Of course if you take naked men, naked women, a culture with loose sexual boundaries, and add in all the wine you can drink, some acts only seen on pay-per-view were bound to happen. This bothered some of the more upstanding members of society (probably because they weren't invited) who complained to local officials. Their constituents aside, politicians also wanted to disband the cult because the parties had become known as dens of political discord, where it was rumored powerful players got together and drunkenly schemed to overthrow the government.  Scared about their jobs - and their lives - the Roman Senate banned the cult in 186 BC in a decree known as the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. Anyone caught at a Baccanalia afterwards was usually executed, but that didn't stop loyal worshipers from having smaller, more private affairs in their homes.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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