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Mary Katherine Morris Photography

What Does Salt Add to a Margarita?

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Mary Katherine Morris Photography

It doesn’t just look cool on your glass! Salt makes the sweet and sour flavors of a margarita pop. Even a little bit of salt suppresses bitterness, which in turn makes sweetness and sourness seem more intense. However, calling salt a flavor enhancer can be misleading – no clear physiological connection between salt and universal flavor enhancement has been found.

What we do know is that salt seems to boost certain basic tastes by suppressing others. Adding even a pinch of salt to a mixture tamps down its bitterness. Since that bitterness would otherwise be counteracting the drink's sweetness, adding salt enhances the perception of sweet flavors.

On a chemical level, research shows that the sodium ion in the sodium chloride molecule (NaCl) is responsible for dampening bitterness. Interestingly, the reverse is not true - when bitter compounds are added to salty ones, the level of saltiness does not noticeably change.

Furthermore, salt seems to intensify our perception of cocktails’ aromas, making their flavors seem more powerful. Additionally, even tiny amounts of salt increase the flow of saliva, which makes the drinks feel slightly richer and thicker.

Salt is effective at busting bitterness even if it’s present in such small concentrations that you can’t tell it’s there. At these levels, the ingredient has a bonus effect: enhancing sourness. Many bartenders have begun adding a few drops of saline solution to citrusy drinks to enhance or brighten the flavor. But be careful – add too much and the cocktail’s acidity will also be suppressed.

For the beloved margarita, adding a small amount of salt screens out the slight bitterness of the Cointreau or triple sec. At the same time, it also heightens the taste of the lime juice and softens the tequila’s bite.

Hit The Lab

Cocktail history can be contentious, and the margarita’s back story and recipe are no exception. Alhough it first appeared on the cocktail scene in the 1940s, tequila drinks weren’t popular until the 1970s. Since then, hundreds of recipes and variations of the margarita have been published or shaken up in bars around the world. Some have a salted rim, while others call for a few drops of a saline solution. To make a weak saline solution, dissolve one part salt in four parts hot water. Let cool and experiment.

Start small; one or two drops may be enough to produce the desired effect. For a saltier taste, add additional drops until the drink is to your taste.

Margarita

1.5 oz tequila
1 oz Cointreau or triple sec
.75 oz lime juice
.25-.5 oz simple syrup (to taste)

Mix ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously for 15 - 20 seconds, and strain into a chilled glass. If you prefer, salt the rim of the glass before mixing the cocktail or experiment with adding drops of saline solution.

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

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