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Rudolph, and Santa's 27 Other Reindeer

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The legend of Santa Claus goes way back, and branches off in many directions. But he has only used reindeer to pull his sleigh full of toys for the past 200 years or so... or at least that's as far back as the research goes. This article at Cryptozoology hints at even earlier beginnings. The veracity of this research is documented at the bottom of the page, but it's an interesting read. The true story of how Santa harnessed his reindeer is comparatively recent.
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In 1821, William Gilley published a booklet for children about "Santeclaus", entitled A New Year's Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve Number III: The Children's Friend. It was the first literary reference connecting reindeer with Santa.

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

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The tradition become part of our folklore with the publication of A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement C. Moore in 1823 (better known today as Twas the Night Before Christmas). This poem named the standard 8 tiny reindeer. They were named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixen. In the 1823 newspaper version of the poem, the spelling Blixem was used, although it was changed to Blitzen when Moore published the poem under his own name. The spelling of the original Dunder was changed to Donder and then to Donner in some modern versions.

Rudolph and all of the other reindeer, after the jump.

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The character Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created in 1939 by Robert L. May as an advertising gimmick for Montgomery Ward. The store distributed millions of coloring books featuring Rudolph between 1939 and 1944.

Rudolph became the subject of a Max Fleischer cartoon in either 1944 or 1948 (sources list both years).

May's brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song about Rudolph, which was featured in the cartoon. It was recorded by Gene Autry and became a hit in 1949.

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Rudolph got another boost in popularity when Rankin-Bass produced a stop-motion animated Christmas special of the story, which first aired in 1964. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer became the longest-running holiday special ever. 

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Following the popularity of Rudolph, the reindeer population at Santa's village grew considerably in popular culture. Many of these were relatives, assistants, or rivals to Rudolph. Robbie the Reindeer is the son of Rudolph and a character in two BBC comedy specials.

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Olive, the Other Reindeer was the subject of a 1997 book and a 1999 Christmas special produced by Matt Groening. The title is a pun from the line "all of the other reindeer.." from the Rudolph song.

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Country music stars have attempted to duplicate the success of Gene Autry's recording. In the 1962 Ray Steven's song "Santa Claus is Watching You" (rerecorded in 1985), more reindeer were added to the herd, namely Bruce, Marvin, Leon, Cletus, George, Bill, Slick, Do-right, Clyde, Ace, Blackie, Queenie, Prince, Spot, and Rover. You may remember Clyde as the camel from Steven's earlier song "Ahab the Arab". Loretta Lyn had a song in 1974 named "Shadrack, the Black Reindeer". Shadrack helped an aging Rudolph to lead the team that year. In 1995, Joe Diffie released "Leroy the Redneck Reindeer", who led the team one year when Rudolph had a cold. That's 28 reindeer. There should be enough deer to cover all exigencies.

100reindeerfood1.jpgAs you leave out milk and cookies for Santa (or whiskey, depending on your generosity), be sure to leave some reindeer food for Rudolph and his cohorts! Here's a recipe. Kids can either sprinkle this on the lawn (easier to find if it's covered with snow) or leave for Santa to feed the reindeer himself.

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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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iStock
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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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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