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15 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in September

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September brings back-to-school season and summer’s end, but there are plenty of unusual things to celebrate this month.

1. September 3rd: National Skyscraper Day
After Labor Day, you can honor the construction workers and engineers who built the world’s modern architectural wonders. One European real estate data company defines a skyscraper as at least 330 feet, while in the United States a building starts to qualify around 500 feet. But, really, any building that towers above its skyline can count if you’re looking to do some gazing in your hometown.

2. September 4th: Eat an Extra Dessert Day
You may have observed this holiday a little early on Labor Day, but go ahead and indulge those residual gluttonous impulses because this holiday gives you the green light. That leftover pie isn’t going to eat itself, so really, it’s the least you can do.

3. September 6th: National Fight Procrastination Day
One of these years we're going to get around to celebrating.

4. September 8th: National Grandparents Day
Founder Marian McQuade wanted to set aside a special day not only for the lonely elderly, but also to encourage grandchildren to “tap the wisdom and heritage their grandparents provide.” President Jimmy Carter was so on board with this initiative, he made the first Sunday after Labor Day an official national holiday to honor grandmas and grandpas across the country. To this day, the President continues to get in on the action - here’s Barack Obama’s official proclamation from 2011.

5. September 10th: TV Dinner Day
The TV Dinner was first introduced to consumers in the United States by C.A. Swanson & Sons in the early 1950s. This pre-packaged, frozen meal would not only provide you a whole dinner with the slight flick of an oven -- it was also designed for ease of consumption while parked in front of a television screen. Take a stroll down your local supermarket’s frozen food aisle to truly appreciate all the TV Dinner has done for our food options.

6. September 15th: National Felt Hat Day
You may think Robin Hood, you may think 10-gallon cowboy, or you may think fedora -- but whatever you think, today you have carte blanche to sport your felt-hat-of-choice with pride. Disclaimer: you may still have to remind people the holiday technically prevents them from mocking your accessory.

7. September 16th: National Stay Away from Seattle Day
You may be surprised to learn that this is actually a very pro-Seattle holiday. Continually deemed one of the best cities to live in America, today was designated to give the city a little breather from all the people rushing to stay there. If only the rain observed holidays, right? If you’re considering Seattle as a destination, temporary or permanent, be a little more considerate than the weather and try to plan around the 16th.

8. September 18th: Rice Krispies Treats Day
A whole day!

9. September 19th: Talk Like a Pirate Day
The establishment of International Talk Like a Pirate Day on September 19th was based on someone’s ex-wife’s birthday. While the date selection might have been arbitrary, the possibilities of TLAPD are endless. If you want to expand your pirate repertoirrrrrr, the official website provides lingo in English, German, Dutch, and even a little Mandarin to provide a truly international annoyance to coworkers and family members.

10. September 21st: World Gratitude Day
In 1977, those hippies at the United Nations Meditation Group established World Gratitude Day to appreciate existence. Even the least existential among us can recognize a thing or two in our lives for which we feel grateful. For example, we feel grateful that you are still reading this article.

11. September 21st: Oktoberfest
Don’t let the “Oktober” part of the name fool you -- the 16-day festival of beer, oompa music, and wurst always starts in late September - and this year, it kicks off on the 21st. Though historically a Bavarian celebration held annually in Munich, Oktoberfests have popped up in cities all over the world. Though the holiday started as a royal wedding celebration, it has since been eclipsed by the beer which must adhere to strict German Beer Purity laws (Reinheitsgebot) to be considered official Oktoberfest Beer. Luckily for us non-Germans, globalization has granted us access to such tasty brews in our local corner stores and supermarkets.

12. September 24th: National Punctuation Day
“A celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.” National Punctuation Day gives you the opportunity to dress up your sentences with all kinds of context and accentuation! Or, take the day to remind yourself what a semicolon actually does.

13. September 27th: Hug a Vegetarian Day
Vegetarians need hugs too! In previous years, PETA has set up hugging hotspots throughout the United States and Canada. Folks nice enough to do that certainly deserve a hug, right?

14. September 28th: Drink Beer Day
Finally, an excuse.

15. September 28th: Museum Day
Anyone who has visited the Smithsonian Museums in Washington D.C. knows they are especially awesome because admission is totally free. If you have visited a museum almost anywhere else in the United States, you know they typically cost a pretty penny. On this special Saturday, however, Smithsonian is partnering with museums all over the country to offer free admission on what they have deemed “Museum Day.”

Which weird holidays will you be celebrating this month?

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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