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12 Days of Christmas, Found on the Net

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Finally, a modern version of The 12 Days of Christmas that involves no singing and no repeating! Here are the gifts from that song you've heard way too many times by now, internet style, because you deserve a bit of Christmas silliness.

1. Partridge

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The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga welcomed the birth of a single crested wood partridge recently. The baby lives in the aquarium's Butterfly Garden. They don't have a pear tree, but the partridges perch in the annatto, olive or pachira trees at night.

2. Turtledoves

150turtledoves.jpgHow to make Two Turtle Doves

Ingredients:
- 1 1/2 oz Smirnoff vodka
- 1 oz coconut cream
- 1 oz half and half
- 1/4 oz creme de cacao
Rimming: shaved white chocolate rim

Mix all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass rimmed with shaved white chocolate rim. Found at Cocktail Times.

3. French Hens

200_frenchhen.jpgThe French version of a hen is poulet, which sounds yummy, especially if you have a French chef to prepare it. I found three great recipes for poulet; you'll have to find your own French chef.

Bouillabaisse De Poulet (Chicken Stew). Stewed chicken with vegetables, from the kitchen of Julia Child.

Poulet en Cocotte Bonne Femme (Chicken Casserole by a Good Woman). Any recipe that starts with a half-pound of bacon can't be all bad. Also from Julia Child.

Poulet au Vin d'Ail (Chicken Breasts with Garlic Wine). Garlic wine is a new one on me, but it sounds delicious! From southwest France by way of Paula Wolfert.

Four calling birds and lots more, after the jump.

4. Calling Birds.

150CallingBird.jpgIt's not so difficult to get a bird to talk, but dialing the phone has been, until recently, beyond most bird's abilities. With voice activation, it's a distinct possibility. Here are four of the best birds you've ever spoken to.

Riley is an Eclectus Roratus Parrot. Here he is having a little conversation.

These mynah birds speak Chinese!

Wee-Woo is a talking starling.

The smartest, of course, is Einstein.

5. Golden Rings

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The five Olympic rings symbolize the quest for the gold at the summer and winter games. These Chinese soldiers have them glowing gold with candles as they mark the one-year countdown to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

OK, I'll admit that the first thing I thought of was golden fried onion rings, but I think we have enough recipes here already.

6. Geese Laying

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Metzer Farms has a goose hatchery with 13 different breeds of geese, and yes, they are laying as fast as they can! The farm ships goslings and other poultry stock all over the world. Pictured are two Canada geese and four Sebastopol geese.

7. Swans Swimming

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It wouldn't represent the internet if there wasn't a game of some sort here. How Stuff Works posted this puzzle challenging you to find the seven swans a-swimming and the other fowls in the song. You can see a larger image at the site, or download it in the .pdf form. Bonus: Other Christmas games and puzzles are linked on the same page.

8. Maids Milking

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1. Threecollie at Northview Dairy runs a family dairy farm in upstate New York and was so kind as to help me find seven other woman who are in the milk business.
2. Her daughter at BuckinJunction is also a cow person. Her first love is rodeo, but she has plenty of milking experience.
3. Her other daughter, Breezy375 also qualifies as a milking maid from a lifetime of experience, although her site is about her college experiences.
4. Joni at My Piece of Heaven raises cattle for beef, but also has a few cows for milking.
5. Caroline of Nexus Farm and Alpacas has an alpaca farm, but also a few dairy goats. What? Nothing in the song says the maids were milking cows!
6. Rosemoon at Moonmeadow Farm has both dairy cows and goats.
7. Rose at Smokey Mountain Breakdown is a writer and a dairy goat farmer.
8. The Kansas Milkmaid obviously qualifies, as she writes about the joys of farm life.

9. Ladies Dancing

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The first thing that came to mind for this is The Rockettes. According to Wikipedia, the Rockettes have performed "5 shows a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for more than 75 years." They are now starring in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in New York, through December 30th.

10. Lords Leaping

10lordsaleaping.jpgDid this ever make any sense at all? No doubt the original song referred to lords as the titled nobility. Now it could refer to the House of Lords in the British parliament. Do they leap to conclusions? Or maybe they are hopping mad! Whichever, it's difficult to get ten of them to agree on anything, much less pose for a picture doing it. So how about some Christmas music? Lords a Leaping Volume II is a collection of original Christmas music written and performed by a group of songwriting friends in Central Pennsylvania. And it has more than 10 songs!

11. Pipers Piping

The Strathclyde Police Pipe Band performing at the 2005 British Championships. There are slightly more than eleven pipers, and they are all good at it.

12. Drummers Drumming

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John Bonham, Buddy Rich, Animal, Gene Krupa, Keith Moon, Billy Cobham, Karen Carpenter, Neil Peart, Phil Collins, Elvin Jones, Sheila E, and Alex Van Halen. See them all here.

Bonus: In researching this article, I ran across 12 mental_floss quizzes from several years back, each having something to do with a verse of The 12 days of Christmas. Good luck!
Drummers.
Pipers.
Lords.
Ladies.
Maids.
Swans.
Geese.
Rings.
Birds.
Hens.
Doves.
Pear tree.

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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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