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The Origins of Salt, Pepper & Other Popular Spices

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For today's reading from In the Beginning: A Mouthwatering Guide to the Origins of Everything, let's take a look at the stories behind some of your favorite spices.

1. Pepper

If you eat enough pepper you'll start to sweat, which explains why the ancients thought the stuff made an excellent medical treatment. The Chinese employed it as a treatment for malaria, cholera, and dysentery, while Indian monks used it as a sort of PowerBar: they swallowed small amounts of the stuff in hopes that it would help them survive their long treks through the rough countryside. Later, pepper became so valuable that it served as a de facto form of currency; it was used for centuries in Europe to pay rent and taxes. In one exceptional case, it was also used for ransom: Attila the Hun is said to have demanded about 3,000 pounds of the stuff in 408 C.E.; in exchange, he promised to lay off the city of Rome and stop sacking it.

2. Salt

It's probably been the most valuable food additive in all of history, mostly because it did such a good job of preserving foods in the centuries before the refrigerator was invented. Salt mines in Chehr Abad, Iran, also testify to the stuff's ability to preserve people. Four "salt men" have been discovered there, eerily mummified by what they were digging for; two of them may date as far back as 650 B.C.E. But the use of salt far predates the Iranian salt men. In China, writings that are something like 4,700 years old testify to its value; the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu, the earliest known treatise pharmacology, mentions more than 40 kinds of salt. And a tragic piece of Chinese folklore that has probably been around since the time of the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu tells a story of how the phoenix, that majestic mythical bird, first brought salt to the attention of a lowly peasant "“ who was accidentally put to death by a temperamental emperor before anyone realized the value of what he had found.

3. Cinnamon

Although it's originally from the hard-to-reach island of Ceylon (a.k.a. Sri Lanka), cinnamon has been a global sensation for millennia. It first appears in Chinese writings that date to 2800 B.C.E. (they called it kwai). Cinnamon was also used by the Egyptians in embalming, perhaps, as with salt, for the same reason that it became a popular cooking spice "“ its warm aroma and antibacterial properties could hide the stench of food starting to go bad. The Romans had attachments to cinnamon, too, both medical and sentimental. Pliny the Elder records the stuff as being worth about fifteen times its weight in silver. And the Roman Emperor Nero, known for both his evil tendencies and his extravagance, sacrificed a year's supply of the stuff as an apologia for murdering his wife "“ although we're guessing Roman spice merchants failed to appreciate the gesture.

4. Nutmeg

Like cinnamon, this one's been a popular spice since the days of, yep, Pliny the Elder, who writes about a curious plant that bears two spices: Nutmeg is the plant's seed; mace is made from a fleshy covering around the seed. Nutmeg's distinctive scent (think eggnog) has made it consistently popular throughout the ages; Emperor Henry VI reportedly had workers blanket the streets of Rome with the aroma in celebration of his crowning. The vast majority of the world's nutmeg now comes from the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada "“ in fact, the local economy is based almost entirely on tourism and nutmeg exports, and the spice is the centerpiece of the country's flag "“ but that's not where the plant originated. In fact, nutmeg didn't even exist in Grenada until British sailors brought it there in the early 1800s; it's from the East Indies, not the West Indies. The British had good reason for introducing an invasive species, though: The combination of a blight, political upheaval, and Dutch merchants who burned nutmeg warehouses to keep the prices high had pretty much wiped out the world supply of nutmeg at that point.

5. Ginger

There's plenty of debate over whether Marco Polo brought back pasta from his trip to China, but one thing is certain: he did bring back ginger. Hugely popular in the Roman Empire, ginger suffered roughly the same fate as said empire; by Polo's days, it was barely known in the West. Polo and company reintroduced it as a rare luxury, and it stayed that way for centuries. In fact, Queen Elizabeth was a noted enthusiast, and some historians think she may have invented the gingerbread man.

6. Horseradish

horseradish.jpgAnything that tastes as strong as horseradish has got to have a history of use in medicine "“ and indeed, horseradish does; in the 3,500 years that humans have been eating it, they've used it to treat everything from rheumatism to tuberculosis, from lower back pain to low libido. Hippocrates wrote about it (along with the 400 other spicy medicines he recommended), and the oracle at Delphi was a big fan, too; he supposedly told Apollo that "the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, and the horseradish its weight in gold." Horseradish had a bit of a renaissance during, well, the Renaissance; as a food fad, it spread all over Europe and Scandinavia, and by the late 1600s, it was a British staple, eaten alongside beef and oysters and made into pungent cordials. Which is all fine and good (we like the stuff too), but why is it called horseradish? The answer has very little to do with horses. The Germans call the stuff "meerrettich," or "sea radish," since that's where it grows. English-speakers may have picked up the word and bastardized it to "mare-radish," which then became not-necessarily-a-female-horse radish. We, however, prefer the more descriptive name that some American settlers used for it; they charmingly (and accurately) called it "stingnose."

This piece was written by Ransom Riggs and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store. Magnetic spice rack photo courtesy of Raindogs.

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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]