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Mary Katherine Morris Photography

Bartending With Fire, Eggs, and Science to Impress Your Friends

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Mary Katherine Morris Photography

Knowing how to mix tasty cocktails will make you a hit at any party, but adding flair to the process can bring the house down. These two drink recipes will capture people's attention before they've even taken a taste. Be warned: Failure to practice these beforehand may result in the party tricks backfiring. Know what you're doing lest you start a fire or literally end up with egg on your face.

Unlocking Citrus With Fire

Citrus fruits store the majority of their aromatic oils in tiny sacs within their peels. When heated, the walls of these sacs weaken and bring that oil to the peel’s surface. Ejecting these oils through a flame vaporizes and ignites d-lemonene, the aromatic hydrocarbon that gives citrus fruits their smells.

This vapor will evenly distribute over the surface of your drink and provide the lingering scent of citrus to your cocktail. 

Hit the Lab

Orange peels are, in my experience, the easiest to flame. After choosing a firm one, cut a slice of peel about the size of a silver dollar and clean off any fruit that is still attached. Hold your lighter in your non-dominant hand and the peel in your dominant hand with the pith towards your palm. Pass the peel over the flame but don’t let the two come into contact. Repeat until the peel’s surface is shiny and your fingertips get warm.

Now, hold the lighter between the peel and the area over your cocktail. With the outside of the rind facing close to the flame, squeeze the peel.

The classic Negroni is a perfect test subject for a flamed garnish. The orange complements the bittersweet Campari and herbaceous gin perfectly, giving the classic Italian cocktail even more oomph.

Mary Katherine Morris Photography

1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth
1 oz gin
1 orange peel

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir for 12-15 seconds or to taste. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a flamed orange peel using the practice above.

Cracking Up With Eggs

Eggs have been used in alcoholic beverages since before the word “cocktail” was coined. In addition to the "wow" factor of breaking out an egg to make a drink, egg whites give cocktails a creamy texture and a beautiful foam cap.

Since egg whites are mostly water and proteins, shaking them with citrus juice and sugar unravels and stretches out the protein chains, strengthening air bubbles' walls within your drink.

Concerned about salmonella? Per the CDC, the bacteria count in most infected eggs is way below a level that would make you sick. To be on the safe side, buy eggs that are as fresh and local as possible. Keep them refrigerated until you’re ready to use them and wash both the eggs and your hands before making the drink.

Hit the Lab

Depending who you talk to, a traditional whiskey sour includes an egg white for texture. The creaminess offsets the sour lemon juice and adds a fluffiness to its sweetness.

Traditional Whiskey Sour
1 egg white
1 oz fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 oz simple syrup
2 oz whiskey of your choice 

Add all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker. Shake without ice for 15-20 seconds to begin emulsifying the mixture and unraveling the proteins in the egg white. Add ice and shake for an additional 20-25 seconds to chill through. Strain into a glass to avoid excess dilution.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]