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7 Overlooked Thanksgiving Rituals, According to Sociologists

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The carving of the turkey, the saying of the grace, the watching of the football. If a Martian anthropology student asked us to name some cultural rites of Thanksgiving, these would be the first few to come to mind. But students of anthropology know that a society is not always the best judge of its own customs.

The first major sociological study of Thanksgiving appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research in 1991. The authors, Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould, conducted in-depth interviews with people about their experiences of the holiday. They also had 100 students take detailed fieldnotes on their Thanksgiving celebrations, supplemented by photographs. The data analysis revealed some common events in the fieldnotes that people rarely remarked on in the interviews. Here are some common Thanksgiving rituals you might not realize qualify as such:

1. GIVING JOB ADVICE.

Teenagers are given a ritual status shift to the adult part of the family, not only through the move from the kids' table to the grownup table, but also through the career counseling spontaneously offered by aunts, uncles, and anyone else with wisdom to share.

2. FORGETTING AN INGREDIENT.

Oh no! Someone forgot to put the evaporated milk in the pumpkin pie! As the authors of the Thanksgiving study state, "since there is no written liturgy to insure exact replication each year, sometimes things are forgotten." In the ritual pattern, the forgetting is followed by lamentation, reassurance, acceptance, and the restoration of comfortable stability. It reinforces the themes of abundance (we've got plenty even if not everything works out) and family togetherness (we can overcome obstacles).

3. TELLING DISASTER STORIES OF THANKSGIVING PAST.

Remember that time we fried a turkey and burned the house down? Another way to reinforce the theme of family togetherness is to retell the stories of things that have gone wrong at Thanksgiving and then laugh about them. This ritual can turn ugly, however, if not everyone has gotten to the point where they find the disaster stories funny.

4. THE REAPPROPRIATION OF STORE-BOUGHT ITEMS.

Transfer a store-bought pie crust to a bigger pan, filling out the extra space with pieces of another store-bought pie crust, and it's not quite so pre-manufactured anymore. Put pineapple chunks in the Jello, and it becomes something done "our way." The theme of the importance of the "homemade" emerges in the ritual of slightly changing the convenience foods to make them less convenient.

5. THE PET'S MEAL.

The pet is fed special food while everyone looks on and takes photos. This ritual enacts the theme of inclusion also involved in the inviting of those with "nowhere else to go."

6. PUTTING AWAY THE LEFTOVERS.

In some cultures, feasts are followed by a ritual destruction of the surplus. At Thanksgiving the Puritan value of frugality is embodied in the wrapping and packing up of all the leftovers. Even in households in which cooking from scratch is rare, the turkey carcass may be saved for soup. No such concern for waste is exhibited toward the packaging, which does not come from "a labor of love" and is simply thrown away.

7. TAKING A WALK.

After the eating and the groaning and the belly patting, someone will suggest a walk and a group will form to take a stroll. Sometimes the walkers will simply do laps around the house, but they often head out into the world to get some air. There is usually no destination involved, just a desire to move and feel the satisfied quietness of abundance—and to make some room for dessert.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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