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iStock / Firebox, Anty Gin, Alaska Distillery

Get Weird With These 13 Unusual Liquors

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iStock / Firebox, Anty Gin, Alaska Distillery

Looking for a change of pace when knocking back drinks? Here are some interesting options to mix up your liquor cabinet.

1. PHOENIX TEARS SPICED RUM

Like a noble phoenix rises from the ashes to live again, you too can rise from a hangover and imbibe. This 80-proof rum from Firebox is the perfect addition to any fiery cocktail. This Caribbean rum has a sweet and spicy flavor with a shimmery appearance. Unfortunately, just like Hogwarts, only citizens of the UK can partake.

2. UNICORN TEARS GIN LIQUEUR

This 80-proof gin liqueur claims to be made with real unicorn tears that were harvested right from the animals' eyes (but not really; sorry fairytale villains). Each bottle is almost 17 ounces and contains a shimmery concoction that tastes like oranges, juniper berries, coriander, and liquorice. Sadly, if you want to taste unicorn tears, you'll have to take a trip to the UK.

3. COOKIES AND CREAM WHISKEY

You can get whiskey that tastes like honey or cinnamon, but did you know you can get even wackier flavors? Booze lovers who also have a sweet tooth will be pleased to discover they can get their hands on some cookies and cream-flavored whiskey. Ole Smoky mixed 35-proof whiskey with cookies and cream liqueur to create a concoction that's delicious whether you're drinking it on the rocks or enjoying it on top of ice cream.

4. SESAME AND POPCORN DAIQUIRI

Popcorn-flavored jelly beans are a source of contention for a lot of people, so this sesame and popcorn daiquiri—which you can pour directly into your glass, no mixing needed—is sure to be a controversial cocktail at any party. The nearly 17-ounce bottle is sealed with blue wax that smells like the salty booze inside. As long as you live in the UK, you can pick up a bottle to start arguments at your next shindig.

5. CINNAMON CHURRO VODKA

Enjoy this street cart dessert in liquid form with the help of Smirnoff. The triple-distilled vodka has 30 percent ABV and works well in creamy, sweet cocktails.

6. PURE MILK VODKA

Yes, you're reading that right: pure milk vodka. Black Cow, a company in West Dorset, England, takes milk from grass-fed cows and turns it into booze. The company ferments the whey created by making cheese into a milk beer, which is then distilled, blended, and filtered. The resulting vodka—which is only available to UK residents—is sweet with hints of vanilla and cinnamon.

7. QUINOA VODKA

This booze is the first and only vodka made with quinoa, according to FAIR, the company that makes it. It's the result of a partnership between French distillers and Andean farmers; the quinoa is grown in volcanic soils on the Altiplano plateau in the Andean mountains. The Beverage Tasting Institute rated the vodka superlative, saying it has "Very neutral aromas and flavors [that] suggest cream, cake, and minerals with a very soft, dryish light-to-medium body and a exquisitely smooth custard, dried fruit, and limestone accented finish. A superbly silky, elegant, and delicious vodka that is fantastic on its own and will be perfect in cocktails." As an added bonus, the booze is fair trade certified.

8. ELECTRICITY VODKA

Oddka is a vodka brand dedicated to weird flavors like fresh cut grass and apple pie—and they've also created "Electricity Vodka," an attempt to capture what a lightning bolt tastes like. The site promises a "shockingly good tongue-tickling shot"; one reviewer at Influenster described the booze as "a little sweet, a little fizzy," while a writer at Gizmodo UK said it tasted "like licking steel wool."

9. SMOKED SALMON VODKA

Is there anything more Alaskan than salmon-flavored vodka? This booze is made with actual smoked salmon and distilled with glacier water. It can be enjoyed on the rocks or mixed into a Bloody Mary.

10. SRIRACHA VODKA

Resist the urge to pour hot sauce right into your glass and buy this spicy vodka from UV. The hot, 60-proof alcohol is inspired by the cult favorite condiment Sriracha and even has a similar bottle design. Like the salmon vodka, this liquor is meant to go in a Bloody Mary; it can also be mixed with raspberry schnapps and cranberry juice.

11. PICKLE VODKA

Chilled Dills pickle-flavored vodka is very high tech: The vodka is distilled six times before flavor infusion even begins—and the infusion process incorporates ultrasonic waves that, according to the website, "create chemical compounds that we can then filter out. The result is a cleaner, more pure spirit than can be created with traditional distilling practices." The booze is great for Bloody Marys, mojitos, and other brunchy cocktails.

12. BREAKFAST CORDIAL

This sweet collection is composed of three cordials: blueberry pancake, maple bacon, and glazed donut. The maple bacon flavor apparently matches the taste of the meat pretty well, but the blueberry pancake (imitation) liqueur is, according to Serious Eats, "sweet to the point where I'm pretty sure I felt my pancreas shutting down."

13. ANTY GIN

Red wood ants produce a compound called formic acid, a reactive compound in alcohol. By making gin with these ants (each bottle contains the essence of around 62 ants), the Nordic Food Lab and the Cambridge Distillery were able to make a booze that has a distinct lemon lime flavor with a hint of lemongrass. Other notes include wood avens, nettles, alexander seeds, and juniper. The current batch is sold out, but keep your eye on their website to snag a bottle next time.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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