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The Quick 10: 10 Strange and Wonderful Festivals

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The Des Moines Art Festival is this weekend, which I am super excited about. It's one of the biggest in the nation, which I bet a lot of people don't expect from Des Moines. My amazing brother-in-law has exhibited there so I think I have a bit of a bias for this particular show.

Anyway, however much I love our Art Festival, I'm quite certain it doesn't qualify for today's Quick 10 (although it was the inspiration).

10 Strange and Wonderful Festivals

1. The Night of the Radishes - Oaxaca, Mexico. La Noche de los Rábanos goes back more than 200 years. Basically, many years ago, a section of radishes wasn't harvested when they should have been and continued growing for months. When the radishes were finally pulled up, they were strange sizes and shapes and were brought to be exhibited at the Christmas market. Now this spicy veggie is celebrated every year in Oaxaca with parades, costumes, prizes and competitions.

2. The Chap & Hendrick's Olympics - London, England. Hendrick's is a brand of gin, for those of us who aren't gin connoisseurs. I am decidedly not a gin fan, but I would consider trying Hendrick's because the brand seems to have an outstanding sense of humor. Last year, the C&H Olympics included the events like the Pipe Smokers' Relay, a competition to see who could tie a Windsor Knot the fastest, and my favorite: a contest where "six cads approached six ladies and whispered savoury nothings. The winner was the recipient of the loudest slap." Awesome.

3. The Alien Festival - Roswell, New Mexico. This one is just around the corner "“ July 3, if you happen to be in the area next week. Events include workshops ("Alien Implants are Real"), an alien haunted house, lectures ("Roswell's Deathbed Confessions, the Truth Revealed"), parades, shows, and "“ obviously "“ costume contests.

4. Mike the Headless Chicken Days - Fruita, Colorado. In 1945, a chicken named Mike, who was intended for dinner, had his head chopped off. An unremarkable story"¦ except that Mike didn't die. He lived for 18 months and continued to, well, act like a chicken. The good people of Fruita celebrate Mike every May, including the "Run Like a Headless Chicken" 5k. The Web site says "attending this fun, family event is a NO BRAINER." Ha. Speaking of puns"¦

5. The O. Henry Pun-Off "“ Austin, Texas. Crap. As soon as my husband reads this, he'll be booking out airfare to Austin for next year. Since 1978, people have entered this competition (it's limited to 32 contestants) to see who can out-pun one another. You can check out some of the winning puns here, but bring your crackers "“ some of the entries are pretty cheesy.

6. Up Helly Aa "“ Lerwick, Shetland, Shetland Islands, U.K. This one is a pyromaniac's dream. In the dead of winter, thousands of people gather to watch about 800 men torch a galley that builders spent four months making. After that part is over, there are lots of parties, dancing, costumes, food and drinking. Honestly, I'm not sure WHY they do this and the official Web site didn't shed a whole lot of light on the subject, so if anyone knows, fill us in! [Image courtesy of Anne Burgess.]

7. Cheese Rolling - Cooper's Hill, Gloucestershire, England. As a strong proponent of cheese, I'm not sure if I love this festival or hate it. Seems like a waste of delicious cheese, but at the same time, it's a festival in honor of cheese! This is what happens: The Official Cheese Roller sends an eight-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese down an extremely steep, uneven hill with rough terrain. About 20 contestants are then sent chasing after it. The first person to the bottom gets the cheese and the second and third-place winners get a small cash prize. There are lots of injuries, which people are generally pretty proud of. In the words of one participant: " I spent the two and half hours with the St. John Ambulance medics where they patched me up before helping me to Gloucester Royal Hospital, where sadly I spent the next four days having two operations under general anesthetic to have the wound in my knee cleaned out of mud and stitched back up. Even though I had this time in hospital, I WILL be back next year to win that cheese."

8. Golden Shears Sheep Shearing Festival - Wairarapa, New Zealand. In 1958, some members of the Wairarapa Young Farmer's Club decided to hold a little sheep shearing contest. This "little" gathering ended up taking off. By 1961, it was such a huge event that the Army was called in to help control crowds. By the 80s, it was so serious that shearers trained for months before the event "“ not only with shears and sheep, but in the gym and with fitness trainers.

9. Hadakamatsuri - Japan. These festivals take place all over Japan and involve lots of scantily clad men (typically, the festivals are all-male), and one completely naked guy (it's good luck to find him in the crowd and touch him). But it's not vulgar "“ at least, it's not supposed to be. It's supposed to be holy. When the festival is held in the winter, participants are "purified" by holy water and compete to obtain a "holy" object of some sort.

10. Naha Tug of War "“ Naha, Okinawa, Japan. This event goes all the way back to the 1600s. About 25,000 people show up to play tug-of-war with a rope that weights approximately 40 metric tons. This huge rope has lots of little ropes on it to allow for the maximum amount of participants possible. Each team has only 30 minutes to try to pull the other team a total of 30 meters to win the match. If neither team is pulled 30 meters, it's considered a tie.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]