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How Breweries Kept Busy During Prohibition

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Wikimedia Commons

Before Prohibition, there were over 1300 breweries in the United States, and the popularity of ales and lagers was at an all-time high. The party ended in 1920, however, when beer was deemed an "intoxicating liquor" by the Volstead Act—the legislation passed to enforce national prohibition and the 18th Amendment—and it became illegal to make, transport, or sell suds.

Unlike underground distilleries that could whip up batches of illegal liquor with little threat of detection, breweries were often big, tax-paying businesses that couldn't just slip into the woods with their massive boil kettles and lauter tuns. How did the few breweries that survived the 13 years of Prohibition do it?

The 18th Amendment didn't pop up overnight, and some brewers had time to prepare. Prohibition was a topic of national debate since before there was even a nation, and its enforcement was centuries in the making.

In 1885, a group of German-American brewers called the Wisconsin State Anti-Prohibition Association published a pamphlet arguing against new taxes and a proposed ban on one of the state's most lucrative products:

Many thousands of people are doing business with the brewers, many thousands of laboring men, mechanics, and artisans...And the prohibition fanatic who wants to destroy the business at once by legislation will please step forward and tell us what he would give to [Milwaukee] in return for the destruction of its most extensive and important business interest.

Beer in America was popularized by German immigrants, and German-Americans owned and operated most of the breweries. During WWI, anti-German sentiment ran rife so arguments like the one above went ignored (or were used as an example of beer's inherent evil). The country was sliding towards a full alcohol ban and was already primed by temporary wartime prohibition, which was enacted in order to preserve the nation's grain supply. Breweries could only make "near beer," or beer that didn't exceed an alcohol content of 2.75%. Once the Volstead Act was put in place, that number had to drop to 0.5%.

Many breweries stuck to near beer, but others that had the means were able to get creative:

Ice Cream

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Both Anheuser-Busch and Yuengling refocused their manufacturing attentions on a more legal vice: ice cream. Anheuser-Busch owned a fleet of refrigerated trucks and used them to transport their new brand of dessert.

Yuengling became the Yuengling Dairy Products Corporation and kept making ice cream until 1985. They reopened their dairy division this year and you can buy the stuff from their website.

Pottery

Coorstek ceramics via Wikimedia Commons

Adolph Coors' glass works (which had originally produced bottles for Coors beer) was converted to a porcelain and pottery company long before Prohibition was an immediate threat. During the alcohol ban, Coors expanded its pottery division and mass-produced ceramic tubes and rods for the military and dinnerware lines.

Malt Extract

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Many breweries, including the manufacturers of Schlitz, Miller, and Pabst, turned their attentions to malt extract. They advertised it as a cooking product and put the following instructions on the packaging: "For bread making use one half as many tablespoonsful of malt extract as formerly used of sugar. This will make the bread light and perfectly browned.”

The real reason people bought it, however, was to use it in making their own beer, or "home brew." Brewing beer at home was illegal under the Volstead Act (unlike wine, which one was allowed to make), and many malt extract producers ended up being raided by Prohibition agents. A court eventually ruled that the extract was legal, and people were able to make as much, um, bread as they wanted.

Dyes

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WWI stalled the importing of dyes to the U.S., and this "dye famine" lasted long after the war's conclusion. This coincided with Prohibition and, rather serendipitously, many brewers noticed their existing equipment could easily be converted into making dyes. F. M. Schaefer Brewing Company, Nuyens Liquers, and the Lion Brewery (renamed The Noil Company) all restructured their operations to make dyes.

Brewery owners weren't the only people who noticed the similarity between alcohol and dye production; in a tasty reversal, many dye chemical plants converted to make illegal hooch.

Read more about the process of turning a brewery into a dye plant here.

Beer

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Beer makers knew Prohibition wasn't going to last forever—I mean, come on, have you tasted beer? That's why Anheuser-Busch got permission from the government to produce 55,000 barrels of real beer to have ready when the ban on alcohol ended. America was going to have to toast with something, after all.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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iStock
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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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iStock

When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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