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20 Facts About Your Favorite Liquors

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Jack Sparrow has his rum, Ron Burgundy has his scotch, and you probably have your own favorite liquor, too. But how much do you know about your beverage of choice from that magical shelf behind the bar?

Whether you're a whiskey connoisseur or just a gin enthusiast, it's always good to keep a few little-known facts under your belt, because you never know when the right piece of trivia will come in handy. After all, if you can't do a magic trick, you might as well dazzle your drinking partners with your knowledge of good spirits.

With that in mind, here are 20 things you might not know about the most popular types of liquor. 

BOURBON

1. In 1964, the U.S. Congress recognized bourbon as a "distinctive product of the United States." The American whiskey gets its name from Bourbon County, Kentucky. Ironically, despite Kentucky producing 95 percent of the world's bourbon, none of it is currently made in Bourbon County.

BRANDY

2. The word brandy is derived from the Dutch word brandewijn, which translates to “burnt wine.” This popular digestif is created by distilling wine.

3. Some of the earliest thermometers—used in the 1600s—contained brandy instead of mercury. The liquor was eventually replaced with mercury due to the latter material's wider range of liquid-state temperature.

GIN

4. Even though gin has been produced in the U.S. since colonial times, it wasn't a very popular liquor until the Prohibition era. The ease with which it could be made and the relatively low cost involved in producing it made gin an abundant favorite at illegal bars.

5. The name gin is derived from various languages' names for the juniper berry—where gin gets much of its flavor. In French, it's genièvre, while in Dutch it's jenever, and in Italian it's ginepro.

6. Gin became extremely popular in the British colonies due to its use as an additive in concoctions intended to prevent malaria. Colonists in tropical areas would use gin to mask the bitter flavor of quinine, an anti-malarial drug, by dissolving it in carbonated water—forming tonic water—and then adding a splash of gin. This gin-and-tonic drink later made its way back to the rest of the world, and the rest is history.

RUM

7. Stylists in the 1800s believed that rum held the secret to clean and healthy hair, and often advised their clients to wash and soak their hair in the tropical liquor. (Brandy was considered a slightly less effective alternative.)

8. July 31 is “Black Tot Day” in the U.K., commemorating the 1970 rule that abolished the British Navy's daily ration of rum for sailors. The ration was referred to as a “daily tot” and dwindled from half a pint twice a day when it was originally introduced in 1655 to 70 milliliters once per day at the time it was abolished.

9. In order to determine whether their rum had been watered down more than it should be, sailors would occasionally mix gunpowder with their liquor and attempt to light it on fire. If the mix refused to flame up, they knew it had been watered down too much. A desirable proportion of water-to-rum, when mixed with gunpowder, would catch fire—thereby giving sailors “proof” of its alcohol content. This is where the modern term for a liquor's alcohol content originates.

SHERRY

10. Famous explorers Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus traveled with a large amount of sherry onboard their ships during their historic journeys. In fact, Magellan reportedly spent more on sherry than he spent on weapons for his 1519 trip around the world.

TEQUILA

11. True tequila (made from blue agave in specific regions of Mexico) never contains the infamous “worm,” though other types of mezcal (made from different agave plants) are occasionally sold with the larval form of a moth that lives on agave plants floating in the bottom of the bottle. Even though the presence of these moths was a bad sign—indicating that the crop has been infested—including a “worm” in bottles of mezcal became a popular marketing gimmick in the 1940s and continues today.

12. No one is quite certain when and how the margarita was first created, but the most popular origin story for the tequila drink dates back to October 1941, when bartender Don Carlos Orozco reportedly mixed up the drink for Margarita Henkel, the daughter of a German ambassador who wandered into Hussong's Cantina in Ensenada, Mexico. Henkel lived near the city, and since she was the first person to sample—approve of—the drink, Orozco named it after her.

VODKA

13. The word “vodka” is derived from the Slavic term voda, which translates to “little water.”

14. While most vodka is the product of distilled grains, potato vodka is also a popular alternative—especially for anyone with gluten allergies. Because it's derived from potatoes, this type of vodka is entirely gluten-free.

15. The first country to make vodka its national drink was Poland, which was also the first country to export vodka.

16. During the reign of Peter the Great, it became customary for foreign dignitaries to drink from the “Cup of the White Eagle”—a chalice containing 1.5 liters of vodka. This prompted many nations' ambassadors to travel in pairs, with one official drinking the vodka and the other attending to the important state issues that needed to be discussed.

17. Vodka is the world's most popular liquor by a huge margin, with more than 4.44 billion liters consumed last year. In Russia alone, 13.9 liters of vodka are consumed each year per person.

WHISKEY

18. The name “whiskey” comes from the English pronunciation of the Gaelic term for distilled alcohol, which translates to “water of life” (or “lively water”).

19. Just after his term as the nation's first president, George Washington built a whiskey distillery on his Mount Vernon plantation. After its completion in 1797, it soon became the largest distillery in the U.S., producing more than 11,000 gallons of the liquor per year. He was encouraged to build the distillery by his farm manager, James Anderson.

20. During the Prohibition era, the U.S. government's ban on alcohol sales did not include whiskey prescribed by a doctor and sold in pharmacies. This exemption was one of the chief reasons behind the exponential growth of the Walgreens pharmacy chain, which stocked whiskey and grew from 20 stores at the start of Prohibition to almost 400 stores in 1930.

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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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