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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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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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