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7 February Holidays

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February is a tough month. We're in the final stretch of winter, and spring seems like a long way off. Maybe that's why they made it the shortest month. But that wasn't enough! To cheer everyone up, they've crammed as many holidays into that short period of time as humanly possible.

1. Groundhog Day, February 2

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You gotta love a holiday centered around weather. You might think it's about the animal, but no, any animal would have done just as well. The real reason Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd is that it is close to the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox. Whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not, we still officially have six more weeks of winter. But hope springs eternal.

2. Superbowl Sunday, February 3

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The manliest celebration of the year is on Superbowl Sunday. Professional football teams have been whittled down to the best of the AFC and the NFC. This year, it's the New York Giants vs. the New England Patriots. A tradition since 1967, Superbowl Sunday was a January holiday til 2004, when season creep pushed it into February. To celebrate properly, you should buy a big screen TV, stock up on beer and meal-sized snacks, and invite your friends over to watch the game. Remember to analyze all the expensive TV ads as well as the game. Here are more tips on hosting a Superbowl party.

3. Mardi Gras, February 5

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Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday". The date is also called Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of fasting leading up to Easter. The purpose of Fat Tuesday is to use up all the temptations before the fast, whether alcohol, sugar, fatty foods, or wild carousing. The idea has expanded to an entire season of Carnival, since there's a lot of temptations out there.

4. Chinese New Year, February 7

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Chinese New Year is the beginning of the Spring Festival which runs 15 days and ends with the Lantern Festival. The date varies from year to year and depends on the lunar calendar. In Chinese astrology, each year is named after an animal in the zodiac, making a 12-year cycle. This February 7th is the beginning of The Year of the Rat. The New Year is a time of fresh beginnings, parades and fireworks, and symbols of good luck.

5. Valentines Day, February 14

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Originally the feast day of St. Valentine, this holiday may have been set at February 14th to replace Lupercalia, a Roman festival where lots were drawn to pair up men and women. Valentines Day has become the day when a woman's status at her workplace is set for the entire year according to the size of the delivery she receives from the florist. Or doesn't. But at least there are plenty of sweets.

6. President's Day, February 18

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Until 1968, we celebrated Lincoln's birthday on the 12th and Washington's birthday on the 22nd. The problem was that having two such holidays in the same month made employers leary of giving anyone either day off. As you need a day off to contemplate the awesomeness of our forefathers (and get to the white sale), Washington's birthday was moved to the third Monday in February. Lincoln's birthday remained on the 12th, but in popular use is combined with Washington's birthday to become Presidents Day and the newest three-day weekend. The effects were immediate: everyone forgot about Lincoln and Washington and made plans to get out of town.

7. Leap Day, February 29

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It's the date that only comes round once every four years, like the Olympics or the US presidential election. There are some exceptions, as you can see in the above flow chart. That in itself is reason enough for a holiday, isn't it? February 29th is the day that those who are celebrating birthdays get to make jokes about how they got their driver's liscence right after their fourth birthday, or are looking forward to retirement after their sweet 16th. Some communities celebrate Sadie Hawkins Day on February 29th. Although Al Capp, who invented the Sadie Hawkins tradition in his comic strip Li'l Abner placed it in the fall, there are those who think the opportunity for women to chase her own beau should be restricted to once every four years.

If that isn't enough for you, here's a longer list of special days in February. We do whatever we can to get through until spring.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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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]

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