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7 Alternative Uses for Beer

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“Beer: the cause of – and solution to – all of life's problems.”
- Homer J. Simpson

When Homer uttered those fateful words, he was referring to drinking his favorite alcoholic beverage. However, as you'll see with these alternative uses for beer, the same could be true even if you don't belly up to the bar.

1. Bathe In It

The next time someone says you smell like a brewery, tell them you just got back from the spa. All over Eastern Europe, people are literally bathing in warm beer as a physical and mental therapeutic treatment. Not only are the yeast and vitamins great for the skin and hair, but the natural aromatics of the hops, a key ingredient in beer, offer a dip more relaxing than a regular hot tub. At most spas, like the Chodovar Brewery and the Bahenec Hotel in the Czech Republic, you can slip into a vat of beer big enough for you and a partner for between 25 and 45 euros (~$35-$65USD). But if you want to bring all your beer-drinking buddies along, you'll need to go to the Starkenberg Brewery in Germany, where, for 135 euros per person (~$185USD), you can bathe for two hours in swimming pools filled with warm, dark beer. [Image courtesy of Beer Spa Bahenec.]

2. Eat It

While drinking may be the preferred method, eating beer is not out of the question. Everyone's had beer-battered fish or chicken, but Mark Zable brings a whole new twist with his patent-pending fried beer recipe. Zable's secret is a ravioli-shaped pocket of dough that protects the beer inside while the outside gets fried to a crisp after 20 seconds in hot oil. The invention earned him a top award at the 2010 Texas State Fair's Big Tex Awards, a competition filled with odd, deep fried concoctions like Pop Tarts, a club salad, and another alcoholic entry, Deep Fried Frozen Margarita.

If you're going to eat beer, you have to go to extremes – either fried in oil or frozen. From Ben & Jerry's 2006 beer-flavored Black & Tan, named after the famous drink mixing a dark stout and a pale ale, to specialty shops all over the country that make their own combinations, beer ice cream has really hit its stride in the last few years. During Denver's 2010 Great American Beer Festival, local creamery Sweet Action Ice Cream came up with six special flavors using local brews to celebrate the event. Some of the highlights included HMS Victory ESB with Oreos, Fort Collins Brewery's Double Chocolate Stout, and Smoked Baltic Porter, mixed with marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers for the taste of campfire s'mores. The shop usually carries at least one beer ice cream every week, and plans on bringing back the special beer blends for the 2011 festival in September.

3. Control Pests With It

Beer has a tendency to bring unwanted pests to your home, usually in the form of people who don't chip in for the keg. But you can use beer to get rid of pests, too. If you have mice pour about an inch of beer in the bottom of a five-gallon bucket, then lean a 2x4 on the outside to create a ramp. The mouse will climb up and in to get his fill, but not be able to get out. With the mouse trapped inside, you can carry the bucket to a nearby field and pour him out.

4. Found a Political Party With It

In the mid-1990s, The Beer Lovers Party had candidates in Belarus (their mascot was a drunken hedgehog) and Russia (they raised nearly 700 million rubles for the 1995 elections). In Norway's 2005 parliamentary election, the Beer Unity Party received 65 votes. The Lower Excise Fuel and Beer Party has had candidates in the 2001 and 2005 Australian elections. Even Canada's Draft Beer Party had a candidate in a 1979 provincial election.

Normally these beer parties are used as a joke to make a satirical comment on the political process. Their point made, they collect an insignificant number of votes, then disappear forever. However, that wasn't the case with the Polish Beer Lovers Party, which started as a farce, but wound up becoming a serious political platform. For the 1991 parliament elections, voters were looking for a different perspective in government. Many found that difference in the pubs where the Beer Lovers Party would gather to have serious discussions about the direction of the country. With the help of this grassroots movement, the party wound up capturing 16 parliament seats. Upon seeing the opportunity to create real change, some members dropped their satirical ways and renamed their faction the Polish Economic Program. They went on to become a legitimate force in the 1992 election of Hanna Suchocka as Prime Minister.

5. Play With It

Drinking games have been around for thousands of years. But a rousing game of Kottabos – a Greek game where players flung the last bit of wine from their cups to knock over targets – isn't exactly taking modern party-goers by storm. Beer pong is all the rage today, especially in fraternity houses, even though it was invented nearly 60 years ago by the Maune brothers of St. Louis. The game has been simplified over time (the original version required paddles and a net) to the point it is now little more than beer cups on both sides of the table that are targets for a thrown or bounced ping pong ball. While rules and gameplay differ from party to party, there has been some effort to legitimize the sport with the establishment of the World Series of Beer Pong, held annually since 2006. The World Series' governing body of bros have set up rules that are used at official regional tournaments, leading up to the big finale in Las Vegas, where the champion two-man team takes home $50,000.

6. Start a War With It

Between 1937 and 1941, Japan and China fought what has become known as The Second Sino-Japanese War. An estimated 1.5 million Chinese and 396,000 Japanese soldiers were killed, not including countless civilians on both sides. The hostilities began in earnest on the night of July 7, 1937, at what has now been dubbed The Marco Polo Bridge Incident.

That evening, Japanese forces stationed in a neutral area near Beijing conducted unannounced military maneuvers by the bridge. China's National Revolutionary Army mistakenly thought they were being attacked, so a few shots were exchanged. There were no reported deaths or injuries, but when a member of the Japanese army did not return to his post, it was thought that he had been captured by the Chinese.

Throughout the night and early morning, shots were fired, troops and artillery were amassed on both sides, and everything appeared headed for all-out war. A cease-fire was eventually called, but hostilities remained in the region. A month later, after more skirmishes, Japan launched a full-scale invasion.

Where does beer fit into all this? The missing Japanese soldier was eventually found alive and well. According to legend, he ducked out during the military maneuvers and went to a nearby bar to get a bottle of Five Star Beer, a popular brand in Beijing.

7. Build With It

In the deserts of the American Southwest, there aren't many natural resources for constructing buildings. So when small mining settlements started cropping up in the early part of the 20th century, people had to use whatever they could to build. Because a saloon was usually one of the first things raised in these small towns, there was always an ample supply of empty beer bottles. By using bottles as bricks and adobe or concrete for mortar, many homes and stores were constructed with tens of thousands of empty beer bottles. The glass is said to be perfectly good for insulation and creates a strong exterior, able to withstand just about any weather Mother Nature can throw at it. The trend caught on and bottle buildings can now be found throughout the country.

While these houses are impressive, they're nothing compared to Thailand's Buddhist temple Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew, known as “The Temple of a Million Bottles.” Since 1984, the monks living there have used approximately 1.5 million discarded beer bottles from nearby towns to create a 20-building complex complete with a main temple, living quarters, and prayer room. The monks even use old bottle caps to create mosaics and other decorative touches.

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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]