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Would You Drink this Ant-Infused Gin?

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Image Credit: Cambridge Distillery

Looking for something unusual to put on your bar cart? Then check out Anty Gin, a collaboration between The Nordic Food Lab and the Cambridge Distillery ("the world's first Gin Tailor"), which is made from the essence of the red wood ant Formica rufa.

According to the booze's website, the ants “communicate using a host of chemical pheromones ... and they defend their complex communities by producing formic acid in their abdomens and spraying it in the direction of any invader ... Formic acid (the simplest organic carboxylic acid, with the chemical formula HCOOH) is a very reactive compound in alcohol, serving as an agent for producing various aromatic esters.”

Jonas Astrup Pedersen of the Nordic Food Lab explained via email that they’d “been working with insects ... for a period, and still do, trying to use deliciousness as argument for entomophagy,” the process of eating insects. “We came across these red wood ants and simply found the flavour astonishing.”

For those of us who don’t know what ant distillate tastes like, Pedersen compares the flavor to those of lemon and lime, and “a bit of lemongrass as well.” To balance the citrusy taste, the gin also contains “herby notes from wood avens, nettles, alexander seeds and of course, juniper.” The base alcohol is made with wheat.

To produce the first batch of 99 bottles, Forager, the appropriately named team in Kent, UK, found and preserved more than 6000 Formica rufa in alcohol. When the alcohol is distilled, the different parts of the liquid separate through evaporation and condensation. Each 700 milliliter bottle contains the essence of about 62 ants and comes with a 50 ml bottle of pure wood ant distillate.

If insects aren’t normally included in your personal food pyramid, the idea of ant gin may not strike your fancy. However, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported that “insects form part of the traditional diets of at least 2 billion people,” and “more than 1900 species have reportedly been used as food” [PDF]. And ants, along with bees and wasps, make up 14 percent of the “most commonly consumed insects.”

A bottle of Anty Gin costs £210, or about $321, plus shipping. Unfortunately, it’s not available in the United States, so you’ll have to try it the next time you travel to Europe.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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