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Jessica Jack Wyrick

How to Make the Best Mocktail

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Jessica Jack Wyrick

Think mocktails are just for the under 21 crowd? Think again. Sometimes, booze just isn’t an option. But that restriction doesn’t mean you should stick to a plain juice. Though these drinks might not taste exactly like alcohol, many of them still have complex, enjoyable flavor profiles.

Taste of booze

The taste of alcohol itself is pretty hard to pin down, and it varies depending on alcohol content. One of the sensations most commonly associated with high-proof alcohol is a burn. Though it’s often described in tasting notes, it's actually transmitted to the brain through the trigeminal nerve rather than your taste buds. Recreating this feeling is easy—just add a bit of spicy pepper. The capsaicin content will give a similar experience.

Another oft noted characteristic of high-proof booze is its astringency. If you swish a sip of barrel-proof whiskey around in your mouth, you’ll notice that your mouth dries out. Outside of hooch, there are a couple ways to add astringency. For a small touch, add fresh apple or pear juice. Try over-steeped black tea or pomegranate juice for a bolder addition.

Low proof alcohols, by comparison, are often described as sweet, bitter, or both. The amount of each that you include in your drink is totally based on your own preference. To sweeten a cocktail, make simple syrup and go to town. Bitterness is a bit trickier. The easiest way to increase it is with cocktail bitters, but their use results in a (very) small alcohol content. Other completely nonalcoholic bittering options include tonic water, lime juice, and coffee.

The Spirit of Taste Compounds

Most taste compounds are named for the foods where they’re commonly found. Some examples include: gingerol (ginger), citronellal (citrus), and vanillin (vanilla). They aren't limited to their namesakes—quite a few are also present in other foods and drinks.

The distilling and aging process can add many compounds to a base spirit. This complex flavor profile is part of what makes aged spirits so popular. One aspect that’s often added is a smoky element. With mocktails, you can easily add in the same effect by smoking either the syrup or the whole drink.

For even more complexity, try barrel aging your syrup or whole drink overnight. The liquid will react with its wood and the tiny bits of air inside the cask and pick up some woody, bourbony flavor compounds.

Hit the Lab

During Prohibition, many bartenders took positions in soda fountains to cover their bills. Naturally, their skill sets and previous experience made them well qualified for this line of work. Though much of their technique in both arenas has been lost to the passage of time, some of their creations have survived.

Since mocktails don’t have the same startup costs as cocktails, experimenting with different ingredients and amounts can be a fun way to figure out your personal taste preferences. Start with this recipe or make up something completely new, but have fun!

Jessica Jack Wyrick

The Soulless Ginger (It's got no spirit!)

0.5 oz simple syrup
0.5 oz orange juice
0.75 oz lemon juice
2 dashes orange flower water
Ginger beer

Combine all ingredients except ginger beer in a cocktail shaker. Shake until chilled through and strain into a chilled long glass. Top with ginger beer.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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