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Revolutionary War-Era Recipes for the Fourth of July

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Milk and water. Traditionally the most wholesome, most healthy stuff a person can drink. Drinks that a hard-working, pure-hearted colonial American would rely on. Fuel for his freedom-hungry soul as it wrestled the constraints of British rule. Right?

Nope. In reality, the colonists hardly touched the stuff. The thing about 18th century milk and water was that there was always a good chance it would sicken or kill whoever drank it. Milk was unpasteurized and often teeming with disease. And water? Death in a Pewter Stein. Diphtheria, cholera, typhoid … all that horrible stuff came from just drinking water that was impure, which was most of it. 

Our young country was founded by people of exceptional strength and brilliance … who still pooped really close to their own water sources and dumped all sorts of rotten and foul things into their rivers. It wasn’t their fault. Science was still mostly leeches and trepanning back then. 

So, boiled-water drinks—coffee and tea—were relied on heavily. But, they were imported at high cost and heavily taxed. (There was some fuss over that in Boston Harbor one night. You may have heard of it.) Plus, colonists, for the most part, preferred stronger hydration.

But rotten water doesn’t have to be a problem—because if you let the right things rot in it, that water becomes sterile. We call it alcohol.  

Getting Lordly with Sir John Strawberry

Alcohol was extremely important to the colonials. They used it for basic hydration, for medicine, and for the rare leisure such a difficult existence allowed.

In accordance with that leisurely attitude toward the stuff, in 1737, Benjamin Franklin compiled a dictionary of 200 synonyms for “being drunk.” My personal favorites include, “Been too free with Sir John Strawberry,” “Nimptopsical,” and simply, “Lordly.” (The mental_floss Store currently carries some fantastic and unique drinkware if you intend to get Lordly with some friends this Fourth, and want to introduce them to Sir John Strawberry.)

One of the reasons a person in the 18th century could drink all day and still have a functioning liver as they entered middle-age (which, to be fair, was their late 20s) was because of “small beer.” For centuries, Western civilization had relied on small beer which usually contained only between 2 to 4 percent alcohol, enough to make sure the water was safe, but not enough to mess you up.  The American colonists (cheerfully fueling the slave trade at the very moment they were considering the concept of their own freedom) especially enjoyed small beer brewed from Caribbean molasses (they were also quite fond of Caribbean rum).

Boozing Without Brits

All that molasses brew and rum dried up when the Revolutionary War started, and the British blockaded colonial seaports. Americans tried to make their own wine, but that never took off. They honestly thought it would, bless them. But, as it turns out, America’s west coast would be more ideally suited for wine valleys.

So, replacements were needed to soothe the dry throats of our militia. Cider, made from pressing apples or peaches and allowing them to ferment, replaced a lot of the molasses-based drinks. And then came corn whiskey! During the Revolutionary War, corn whiskey wasn’t just the domain of moonshiners and pipe smoking, Hatfield-hatin’, Appalachian grandmas.

The whiskey biz turned a major perishable crop of America—corn—into something shelf-stable. And it helped the fledgling nation grow its economy. In 1799, George Washington’s distillery at Mount Vernon was producing 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. George Washington brewed whiskey as a means of boosting the American economy and helping to establish independence from all things British. Thus, by the transitive property, if you love America, you will drink whiskey this Fourth of July.

Some Real 18th Century Drink Concoctions for Your Flossy Fourth Party

Some of the most well-named, most creative colonial drinks are, sadly, not suitable for summer consumption.  Rattle-Skull involves mixing 3/4 ounce dark rum, 3/4 ounce brandy, 1 bottle of porter, and the juice of half a lime. Grate nutmeg on top. Drink. Lie down for the rest of the day.

Whistle-Belly Vengeance, which is such a good name I would consider it for a child, was made of sour household beer simmered in a kettle, sweetened with molasses, filled with brown breadcrumbs and drunk hot.

Below are some better options for your Fourth of July BBQ. These may be the very drinks our founding fathers used to toast the likelihood of their eminent executions for treason after signing the Declaration of Independence. (A better glass for such a toast doesn’t exist.)

Or, if you would like for your party’s drinkware to be reflective of a more modern staple of Americana, try these Red Cup Living cups. They look just like the kind you toss (in the recycling bin) when the party is over, but these are super-sturdy, dishwasher-safe, and reusable for many parties to come. The wine and cocktail versions give the “classier” libations the casual attire they need for a backyard barbeque.

Fish House Punch

Difficulty Level: Pretty darn complicated. For true patriots only.

Ingredients:
¾ pound sugar
1 Bottle of lemon juice
2 Bottles of Jamaican rum
1 Bottle of Cognac
2 Bottles of water
1 Wine-glass-full of peach cordial
Lots of ice (it says “cake of ice” but we don’t know where to tell you to find one of those)

Directions:
Completely dissolve 3/4 pound of sugar in a little water, in punch bowl
Add a bottle of lemon juice. 
Add 2 bottles Jamaican rum,
1 bottle cognac,
2 bottles of water
1 Wine glassful of peach cordial. 
Put a big cake of ice in the punch bowl. 
Let Punch stand about 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
In winter, when ice melts more slowly, more water may be used; in summer less.  The melting of the ice dilutes the mixture sufficiently.
Makes about 60 4-ounce glasses

GINGER BEER

Difficulty level: Medium to Hard – sometimes finding the ingredients will be the hardest part. By the way, the fermentation time isn’t long enough to create alcohol, just a nice carbonated fizz.

Ingredients:
2 ounces of powdered ginger root (or more if it is not very strong)
1/2 ounce of cream of tartar
2 large lemons, sliced
2 pounds of broken loaf sugar
2 gallons of soft boiling water 

Directions:
Put all ingredients into a kettle and simmer them over a slow fire for half an hour (you may be able to find a more modern solution that produces the same effect).
Remove from heat.
When the liquor is nearly cold, stir into it a large tablespoonful of the best yeast (only the best).
After it has fermented, which will be in about 24 hours, bottle for use.

Switchel 

An electrolyte-heavy, sweet-tart drink that staves off thirst. The Gatorade of the Revolutionary War.

Difficulty level: Really pretty easy

Ingredients:
1 c. light brown sugar
1 c. apple vinegar
1/2 c. light molasses
1 tbsp. ginger
2 qtrs. cold water

Directions:
Combine and stir well. 

So at your first-annual Flossy Fourth Party, raise your cup of American corn whiskey mixed with Switchel, and give thanks to the magnificent drunkards that came before you!

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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