What Makes Simple Syrup Simple?

Everything. From its ingredients to its straightforward recipe, simple syrup might be the least complicated item on a bar. But its role in your favorite drinks is incredibly important. For classic cocktails like the Daiquiri or the Ramos Gin Fizz, sugar balances the sourness and alcoholic bite of the other ingredients.

Although the original recipes of many drinks call for superfine sugar, substituting simple syrup reduces the amount of undissolved sugar remaining in the finished drink. There’s another key benefit as well: Since the solubility of any substance decreases with temperature, using syrup also simplifies mixing drinks with chilled ingredients.

It’s also simple to make. By definition, it’s a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water. At room temperature, this ratio falls short of the saturation point of sucrose (sugar) in water, which is around 2000 g/L. This limit opens up two possible ways of making simple syrup. If you’ve got free time, combine equal parts sugar and water in a sterilized glass container at room temperature. Shake occasionally, and in about 15-20 minutes you’ll have simple syrup. The alternative is to heat the mixture and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Each method has its pros and cons: The room temperature technique results in more viscous syrup since the sucrose hasn’t been broken down by heat. Though the thickness adds a silkier texture to cocktails, it may also reduce the syrup’s shelf life. On the other hand, making simple syrup on the stove can kill some of the bacteria and microbes that occur naturally in the mixture. In theory, this process should extend its longevity.

Preventing spoilage otherwise requires a little bit of creativity. If you’re OK with boiling your syrup, add a pinch of cream of tartar or a dash of lemon juice and let simmer for longer than normal. Both the acid and heat speed up the reaction between sucrose and water in a process known as hydrolysis. This process breaks the sucrose down into two simple sugar molecules: fructose and glucose.The resulting syrup is slightly sweeter than simple syrup, so you may have to readjust your favorite recipes accordingly.

Another way to stabilize sugar syrup is to add a little bit of vodka or other neutral spirit. Depending on the size of your batch, adding between a teaspoon and an ounce should inhibit growth of anything undesirable. Yet another is to make rich simple syrup by using a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water. As a saturated solution, this ratio should yield a sweeter syrup that is less likely to spoil due to its decreased water content.

Hit the Lab

After your syrup’s finished, it’s time for some experimentation. Back in the 1880s, Henry Ramos created this drink in his New Orleans bar. It quickly became so popular that Ramos always had at least ten bartenders behind the bar every night to fill the demand.

Ramos Gin Fizz

1 dash orange water (Don’t skip or substitute.)
1 egg white
.5 oz lemon juice
.5 oz lime juice
.5 oz simple syrup
1 oz heavy cream
2 oz gin

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for one to two minutes. Strain into a chilled Collins glass and top with a splash of club soda.

Image credit: Mary Katherine Morris Photography

Original image
iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
Original image
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!

Original image
Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
Original image
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]