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Wikimedia Commons

What is Fortified Wine?

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Wikimedia Commons

Intimidated by fortified wines like sherry and port? Don't be. Put simply, fortified wine is a blend of still wine and distilled spirit. Besides being your Grandma’s favorite kitchen staple, fortified wines have a lot to offer. Quite a few different varietals exist—think of this as a basic primer.

Spirited Additions

Fortified wines have existed for hundreds of years. Since ethanol is a natural antiseptic, adding it to anything kills off most of what could potentially spoil it. During colonial times, the heartiness of the fortified wine meant that it could be shipped long distances without compromising its flavor.

The distilled spirit, usually a grape brandy, is added either during or after a wine’s fermentation. During fermentation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast is added to the juice of grapes that have been slowly and gently squeezed and filtered. Over the course of fermentation, the yeast converts the grape's natural sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

As yeast cells can’t survive in high ethanol concentrations, the fermentation process stops when the wine’s alcohol content gets higher than 12-15 percent. This process can also be halted by the addition of a neutral spirit, as is done in port. Adding the spirit before fermentation is complete also ensures that much of the grape’s natural sugar remains in the final product.

Touring Port

This Portuguese product must be made of grapes that were grown and processed in the country's Douro region. By European Union law, anything labeled as port must originate here.

According to history, port was not created by sailors trying to preserve the Portuguese product. Instead, representatives from an English wine merchant chanced to visit the Abbot of Lamego in 1678. After tasting the sweet, smooth port and learning how it was fortified, they bought his entire stock and shipped the lot back to England.

In the following years, port became so popular that the port houses began shipping in grapes from other regions. When this news broke, the drink quickly lost popularity within England. This resulted in the passing of a legally-binding designation of origin to protect its definition, making port the third oldest appellation in the world.

A Sherry History

Under European law, sherry must come from the region around Jerez, Spain. Typically produced with white grapes, the wine base is allowed to ferment entirely before the grape brandy is added. From there, different blends are aged using various methods. Blends designated for Fino and Manzanilla sherry are then rested in barrels where they develop a yeast-like growth called "flor." This layer protects the liquid from excess oxidization, giving the final product a lighter color and drier taste.

Oloroso sherry, on the other hand, is more heavily fortified. As a result, the flor doesn’t develop, and the blend oxidizes. Since most of the natural sugar is processed during fermentation, sweet varietals of sherry are then sweetened with the juice from dried grapes.

Hit the Lab

Clair McLafferty

If you want a safe way to try out some new sherries, make yourself a sherry flip. (Nervous about the whole farm egg thing? Putting eggs in cocktails is a tradition that predates the word "cocktail." It’s also totally safe!)

Sherry Flip
4 dashes chocolate mole bitters
Whole farm egg
Short 0.5 oz Grade B maple syrup
2 oz Oloroso or other dry sherry

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Shake vigorously without ice for 20-30 seconds. Add ice and shake for another 17-20 seconds. Strain into a chilled rocks glass and enjoy.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]