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How the World Celebrates Dad

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If you own a television or have walked by any store selling either hardware, sporting goods or electronics, then you know this Sunday is Father's Day. Father's Day has come a long way since its modern inception in 1908, when the towns of Fairmont, West Virginia, and Spokane, Washington, celebrated the first and second official Father's Days within two weeks of each other that June. The holiday caught on and became widely celebrated in the United States, though it was not until 1972 that Richard Nixon established it as an official holiday, and Madison Avenue did to it what Hallmark did to Valentine's Day.

But as Americans, we can't take credit for Father's Day. In every inhabited corner of the globe, people have developed unique ways of thanking Dear ol' Dad for raising us, guiding us, and for simply being there. So this year, when you're thinking of what to get for Dear ol' Dad, take a look at what the rest of the world does for their fathers.

Candy, meat, and self-imposed acts of humiliation

In late August or early September, the Nepalese celebrate Gokarna Aunsi. On this day, grateful sons and daughters present their fathers with traditional sweets and slabs of meat—a perfect gift for any red blooded American.

Those whose fathers are no longer among the living spend this day worshiping the Gokarneswor Mahadev, a sacred shrine to the Hindu lord Shiva. The shrine is in the village of Gokarna, five miles east of Kathmandu, and is said to have a strong connection with the souls of the dead. At the shrine, the fatherless pilgrims give gifts of grain and coins to the priests who live there, since the priests have no children of their own.

And what Father's Day would be complete without showing your old man that he's still the boss? Nepalese sons do this by rubbing dad's feet with their head in an act of veneration. If that's not love, then I don't know what is.

Dad not crazy about meat? Do what the Sicilians do.
March 19th is St. Joseph's Day, and since Joseph was the most important father in the Catholic Church, it's also a day for honoring dad. For Italians, this means an ample feast. However, March 19th almost always falls in the middle of Lent, when orthodox Catholics abstain from meat, so "St. Joseph's Table," as it is called, is entirely without meat. Families gather around the table and eat all manner of bread, vegetables, egg dishes and St. Joseph's Pasta, which consists of spaghetti in a red sauce often with anchovies or sardines and topped with bread crumbs representing sawdust (a nod to Joseph's profession as a carpenter).

In Sicily, fava beans are also an important part of the festivities. As legend has it, the mediaeval Sicilians survived a massive drought and famine by praying to St. Joseph, who in his infinite grace pulled some strings with the Big Guy and saved the Sicilians with...yeah, you guessed it...fava beans. However, my sources inform me that there was no Chianti to speak of.

Fire up more than just the grill
March 19th also marks Father's Day in Valencia, Spain, where fathers are celebrated with the most awesome gift of all: FIRE!

Carpenters in feudal Spain saved their wood shavings and sawdust all year round until St. Joseph's Day, when they would construct a massive bonfire in the center of town which would burn into the wee hours of the morning while the townspeople danced and drank around it. This celebration evolved into the more modern custom practiced today. Each year, in early March, great statues of wood and wax are erected throughout the city of Valencia. Statues depicting everything from life, local heroes and political leaders, to the fantastic and supernatural. Designed and built by local artists, the statues attract tourists and onlookers to the city as the night of the festival approaches. At the stroke of midnight on the night of St. Joseph, the statues are ignited amid parade marches and elaborate firework displays.

You can recreate your own Valencia Fire Statue with simple household items, if you are so inclined. But be sure to keep a water hose handy. The only reason that the town of Valencia hasn't yet gone up in flames is that the building are, without exception, constructed from granite blocks. Your father's house, regrettably, is not.

Dads gone wild (and non-dads, too)
In Deutschland, Vatertag, the solemn day of family togetherness closely resembling our own Father's Day, is rivaled by the concurrent Herrentag, or Men's Day. This bawdry affair is feted by groups of men who load small wagons with beer, schnaps and sausages and lead drunken processions through town or out into the woods. Despite opposition from many—German Family Minister, Ursula von der Leyer stated recently, "I've had enough. I think it's awful...Fathers should not be drunk in front of their children"—the inebriate debauchery of Men's Day still draws a crowd of merry pranksters each year, though few of them are actually fathers.

So, this Sunday, when you're on your way to see dad, why not stop off and pick up a case of cold ones, a Radio Flyer and a Hillshire Farms sampler pack? It's sure to beat that rotary sander you got him last year.

Give the gift of Involuntary Captivity
The Serbian Father's Day is held on the Sunday before Christmas, part of the three week run-up to the Nativity along with Children's Day and Mother's Day. The tradition on Father's Day, or Ocevi, is to tie dad to an object from which he cannot be released until he offers a ransom in exchange for his freedom. The object could be anything: a bowling ball, car tire or even the upstairs radiator. Imagine the possibilities. Early Sunday morning, Daddy Dearest finds himself locked in the bathroom, the door firmly barred shut, trapped helplessly on his porcelain throne with only the sincerest love of his children to keep him company until he finally concedes to pay off your student loans and that credit card you maxed out buying all those anime DVD's.

Giving blood and taking animals
In Thailand, the King's Birthday also serves as National Father's Day. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, born on December 5, 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the ninth king of Thailand's Chakri Dynasty on June 9, 1946. Each year on his birthday, the people of Thailand don yellow garments—yellow being the traditional Thai color representing Monday, the day of the king's birth—and gather in the street for parades and dancing while fireworks burn through the night sky.

Other celebrations include acts of charity and honor, the most distinct being the donation of blood and the liberation of captive animals. "Happy Father's Day, Dad. Oh, where's Bandit? you ask. I freed him as an act of merit to honor you. Here's a pint of B positive. Yeah, I knew you'd be thrilled. I love you too, Dad."

Putting dad to work
ISS_Usachev_290.jpgAnd what would Father's Day be without unnecessarily complicated gadgets? In 2001, Yuri Usachev, cosmonaut and commander of the International Space Station, received a talking picture frame, a gift from his 12-year-old daughter, Evgenia, while in orbit.

The gift was made possible by RadioShack, who, with the help of several of Commander Usachev's colleagues, filmed the presentation of the gift for a television commercial, which aired for the first time during ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball on May 27, 2001. The talking frame, which has since spawned the even more mind-boggling advancement, the talking greeting card, was pocket-sized and made of black plastic with a hinge in the center. When opened, it revealed a small photo on one side and a speaker and microphone on the other. Evgenia's message to her father: "Hey dad, we are wishing you good fortune and success in your job, and good relations with the crew." Proving that, even on Father's Day, even in the deep vacuum of space, poor ol' Pop just can't get a break from work.

Timothy Mercer is an occasional contributor to mental_floss.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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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.