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The One Change You Should Make to Vastly Improve Your Morning Coffee

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Some home baristas go all out. They have coffee makers and grinders that cost hundreds of dollars, buy only the finest specialty beans, and labor over their pour-overs like they’re birthing a child. Other people just want to down a scalding hot cup of liquid caffeine in the morning. And somewhere in the middle, there are those of us who love to drink the kind of coffee offered by specialty cafes, but don’t want to spend any more money or time than is strictly necessary to make such a beverage on our own.

To find out just how to get the best cup of coffee without straying too far from my lazy and stingy habits, mental_floss went to this year’s New York Coffee Festival and asked some of the city’s finest baristas and coffee experts what is really important when it comes to making your own coffee. Is it the temperature of the water? The brew time? The equipment?

“If you could only focus on and invest in one part of the coffee-making process,” we asked, “what would it be?” Yes, all the parts of the coffee-making process are technically intertwined, and if you use terrible-tasting water or let it brew too long or burn the coffee, it’ll taste bad, no matter what else you do. But what makes the biggest difference in making your coffee go from so-so to perfect?

According to most of the coffee experts we spoke to, it’s all about that grind. “You want all the grounds to be the same size, because you want the coffee to extract at the same rate,” says Chloe Langham, a coffee educator at Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters in Brooklyn. If you’re using a blade grinder—the basic, cheap kind of grinder with two rotating blades—it’s going to churn out some pieces of coffee that are bigger than others, and that’s no good. “The large particles will under-extract and the smaller particles will over-extract,” she describes. The former will create sour notes in your cup, and the latter, bitter notes. “Your coffee will be all muddled.”

Good grinders can be expensive, but it’s worth it, according to every barista surveyed. Really, says Rachel Northrup of Ally Coffee, “Invest in a grinder.” She came to Ally with a background in agriculture, rather than in pulling shots of espresso, and she had to be forced into buying a good grinder by her colleagues at Ally. “It was the one upgrade I made,” she tells us. “It changed my life.”

Thea Heilbron, a longtime barista who now serves as the events director at New York’s Cafe Grumpy (which you may know from Girls) recommends a Cuisinart burr grinder like this $50 one for beginners. But she adds that you should never leave your beans inside the grinder’s hopper, even if it looks like the perfect coffee storage space. Not only will the oils degrade the burr mill, but over time those oils will get rancid—and spread all over your fresh coffee. Unfortunately, this means that “rancid is what most people are used to.” No more!

If you’re really looking for that perfect cup, you should grind your coffee immediately before you brew it. “Once the coffee is ground, the aromatics start to disappear within 30 to 45 minutes,” explains Andrew Oberholzer, who roasts the coffee shop Joe’s specialty Top Shelf line. When asked if he would ever consider having a coffee shop grind his coffee, he looks a little scandalized, saying that it would be a last resort if he happened to be going away for the weekend to a place with only a drip coffee machine and no grinder. His tone of voice indicates that he does not go to those kinds of places.

However, not all coffee experts are so fastidious in their recommendations. Gregg Roberson, the head roaster at the New York City-based Gregory’s Coffee (and no, he’s not the eponymous Gregory), agrees that the grind of your coffee is paramount, but he isn’t as much of a stickler for grinding your own beans at home, right before you brew. “I don’t know if beginners know the different grinds,” he points out.

If you can’t tell the difference between the grind for a French press versus a drip coffee, maybe leave it to the professionals at first. Buy your beans at a coffee shop and have them grind them for you to get a better idea of what you should be doing at home. Once you grind your beans, Roberson says, they have a week to a week and a half—“if you’re pushing it”—before they really lose their flavor and aroma.

While it was definitely the most popular response, a few baristas didn't put the grind of the beans at the very top of their list. The coffee-to-water ratio is vital, too.

Caleb Ferguson, who serves as Joe’s director of training and quality control, places the scale first in the coffee equipment power rankings. “If you don’t know how much coffee you’re using or how much water you’re using, odds are, you’re probably not making very good coffee,” he argues.

Meanwhile, Kelsey Forde, a barista educator at Brooklyn Roasting Company, comes down on the other side of the debate. “I don’t ever use a scale. I go by taste. Scales are expensive.” Do a little experimenting, she says, and figure out what makes the taste you like.

And if the world of high-end coffee baffles you, there are a few basic coffee makers that it's hard to go wrong with. Ryanne Allen, a barista at the Brooklyn-based Nobletree Coffee, has a very simple recipe for good coffee: “Buy a Clever,” she advises. The immersion coffee dripper runs only $18, and is basically fool-proof. Just pour in hot water, wait a few minutes, and place the dripper on top of your cup. “I swear by that,” she says.

For automatic machines (like that Mr. Coffee you have sitting in the office break room), Carolyn Durkee, a trade show specialist at the Seattle-based Espresso Supply, says to make sure it’s certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), which ensures that it meets the qualifications needed to produce the ideal cup of coffee—meaning that the water and the coffee grounds are in contact for somewhere between four and eight minutes with the water temperature 197°F to 205°F, among other requirements.

Just remember: Do what tastes right to you. "All these new technologies in brewing are not necessary to every home barista," says Ally Coffee's Angie Thompson. If you really love the brew your Mr. Coffee auto-drip machine makes, drink your heart out.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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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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