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Flickr User hippiebus1970

The Chemistry Behind Making the Best Jello Shots

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Flickr User hippiebus1970

Almost everyone I know has at least one Jello Shot story. Though most of these tales don’t have happy endings, the slurp-able alcoholic gelatinous shooters are a party staple. Nowadays, even upscale bartenders are reimagining these easy-to-consume solids.

Some have even gone so far as to write books on the subject. One of our favorites, the Jelly Shot Test Kitchen, gives precise instructions for turning cocktails into sophisticated gels.

Solid, liquid, or gel?

Much of the magic of Jello Shots is in their apparent transition from liquid to solid. In reality, gelatin is a gel rather than a solid. Put simply, this means that the jello is mainly liquid by weight, but this liquid is thickened by the addition of long molecules (polymers) and tiny particles (colloids).

Within a gel, these particles link and stick together in a process called cross-linking. Once linked, the particles can no longer flow past each other, making the resulting mixture appear solid. In Jello Shots, the liquid portion is made up of the water and booze, while the gelatin supplies the polymers and colloids.

Gelatin, the main gelling agent in jello, is a collagen derivative. Collagen, a tough, flexible protein, is found primarily in animals’ connective and protective tissues. When heated in water, it becomes gelatin, a versatile substance with a surprisingly wide range of applications.

Gel well

At a certain point, adding more booze to Jello Shots just makes them gross. However, there are a few ways to strengthen your shots without sacrificing taste.

One of the biggest factors is creating the strongest gel possible. The water binding power of any substance is measured in what’s called “bloom.” Though the term may sound like it comes from gelatin’s tendency to bloom (soften and expand) in water, it’s actually named for Oscar T. Bloom, the scientist who came up with the test that measures gel strength.

A bloom of 50 is considered weak while one of around 200 is on the strong side. For comparison, Knox brand gelatin has a rating of approximately 225. Using a stronger gelatin will result in a stronger gel.

Take your best shot

One way to make the gel stronger is to hydrate it in two steps. Grocery store gelatin usually comes in powder form. This powder is made up of tiny granules that must fill with water before the colloids and polymers can begin to spread and cross-link into a gel.

First, soak the gelatin powder in a bowl of cool or warm water. This step helps ensure that no dry gelatin gets trapped within a bubble of hydrated gelatin. Once it’s a thin, pasty texture — known as a slurry — heat it until the whole solution becomes consistent.

Another way to incorporate all of the powder is to boil it in water until it is hydrated.

Hit the Lab

Since gelatin is an animal by-product, your vegetarian or vegan friends might need another option. One is agar-agar, a seaweed derivative that’s often found in Asian candies. This substance tends to be more crumbly and less chewy than gelatin, so some experimentation may be necessary to craft the perfect agar-agar shot.

Only you can discover the exact ratio of booze to water that’s perfect for you. Since one of the easiest ways to improve your Jello shots is to improve the quality of your liquor, start with a mid-range spirit.

Then, decide your ratio of water to booze. Many sources suggest 2/3 cup hot water to 2/3 cup booze, so this ratio can be a good starting point. Others propose using 4-5 oz of water and anywhere from 9 to 14 oz of booze. Internet Jello enthusiasts also gives some more specific pairing ideas such as using lime Jello with tequila, pineapple with coconut rum, or cherry with whipped cream vodka.

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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]