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Dietribes: Bloody Mary

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• So what exactly is in a Bloody Mary? With its combination of vodka, tomato juice, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, celery salt, cayenne pepper (or Tabasco sauce) and black pepper, the drink contains hundreds of compounds and has been called "the world's most complex cocktail." A flavor wheel shows how the drink hits pretty much every note for the senses.

• Many successful Bloody Marys include "secret" ingredients including fresh seasonal vegetables, pickled brussels sprouts, turnips, green beans, radishes, caper berries, Kim Chi and up to twenty ingredients in a single mix (and don't forget the bacon-flavored vodka!)

• One thing you don't need? Celery. "What is the celery doing there? It adds nothing, flavour-wise, and you have to drink around it, like a nervous vicar, or it gets impaled in your nostril. Are you meant to lick the vodka and tomato juice off the celery? Or nibble it like a rabbit? Puh-lease. I have yet to meet anyone who orders a Bloody Mary and says: '…And make sure you add a stick of celery, Marcus old chap.'"

• A (disputed) history is that the drink was created in 1920s Paris, because it was popularized by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, though the exact origins are unknown. What is known is that the recipe change of substituting Tabasco sauce for cayenne pepper occurred in the 1950s when Tabasco was exported to France for the first time.

• Despite what many of us would guess, the drink's name has nothing to do with 16th Century Queen Mary I of England. According to a 2008 article, the beverage's name "comes from a customer's fond memory of a waitress named Mary who worked at a Chicago bar called the Bucket of Blood" (which seems a lot more spurious to me….)

• As the New York Times mentions, "in this country, there is a holiday for nearly every date on the calendar." So here's another one: October 5th was declared Bloody Mary Day by New York City's Mayor Bloomberg in 2009, and included celebrations at one of the other "origin" bars, the King Cole at the St. Regis

• If once a year isn't enough celebration for you, you might consider joining the Bloody Mary of the Month Club, where you will be sent mixes for those who don't want to bother finding all of the ingredients themselves. There's no shame in it - the pre-mixed Bloody Mary is one of the most popular inflight drinks of all time.

• Many of us may remember in school or slumber parties daring someone to say "Bloody Mary" into the mirror. Brad Walters of “Cortical Hemming and Hawing” retells the legend of Bloody Mary and offers some thoughtful hypotheses as to what might actually account for the appearance of a strange figure in the mirror. (FYI: There's a creepy image on the page - to avoid it, you can go to the Snopes article that talks about the legend instead)

• And if this has made you thirsty for a libation, pour one out for poor Mary I a.k.a. Bloody Mary, who had a rather hard time (might also want to pour one out for the 300 Protestants she burned as well).

• So what do you put in your Bloody Marys, Flossers? Any secret ingredients you're willing to share?

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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