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8 Parade Entries To Watch For On Tuesday

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The 56th US Presidential Inauguration will take place on Tuesday, January 20th, although the festivities begin this weekend. The traditional parade will take place Tuesday afternoon after the swearing-in ceremony. Of the many parade participants, here are just a few that deserve a closer view.

1. Azalea Trail Maids

The Azalea Trail Maids of Mobile, Alabama are a group of 50 high school senior girls who dress in pastel 19th-century hoop skirts and serve as representatives of Mobile. The Maids appeared in the 2005 Inaugural Parade and were surprised to be invited again this year. Comments made by Alabama's NAACP President Edward Vaughn produced a flurry of news stories and discussions on whether the Maids were appropriate for this inauguration. Vaughn said the dresses reminded him of slavery, and the Maids would make Alabama the laughingstock of the nation. Vaughn has since apologized for his remarks.

2. Lawn Rangers


The World Famous Lawn Rangers of Arcola, Illinois are a precision drill team of men who march with brooms and lawn mowers. They aren't at all serious about it, and they aren't all that precise. But they have attracted some high-profile members like Dave Barry, and Barack Obama even marched with them in 2003. See a video of the Lawn Rangers in action.

3. Moon Buggy


For the first time, NASA will be represented in the inaugural parade this year by a lunar vehicle. Astronaut Michael Gernhardt will drive the moon buggy prototype designed for a moon mission planned for about twelve years from now. The crew of the space shuttle Endeavor's latest mission will also march in the parade.

4. Tuskeegee Airmen


The Tuskeegee Airmen, who fought valiantly in World War II, were featured in the presidential inauguration once before, in 1949. But that was only a flyover, and they never got anywhere near the actual inauguration. This year will be different. The 250 surviving members of the all-black unit will be honored guests with seats at the swearing-in ceremony. They will ride vintage cars in the parade, and president Obama plans a special salute to the Airmen, all now in their 80s and 90s.

5. Lesbian and Gay Band Association


The Lesbian and Gay Band Association will send an all-star marching band to the inaugural parade. This will be the first year that an openly gay group has been invited to participate in the parade. The LGBA is a confederation of 34 different marching bands and orchestras around the world. The band will perform five songs, the "Washington Post March" by John Philip Sousa, "Ode to Joy," by Ludwig van Beethoven, "Hold On, I'm Comin'", popularized by Sam and Dave, "Brand New Day," from the Broadway musical The Wiz, and "Manhattan Beach" by John Philip Sousa.

6. Soapbox Derby Car


The South Cobb High School Blue Eagle marching band is one of several high school bands invited to the inaugural parade. One member of the band, 14-year-old drummer drummer Devin Robinson suffers from a neuromuscular disease and requires a vehicle in order to participate. Devan Seabaugh, the soapbox car enthusiast who brought soapbox derby racing to Marietta, came up with the solution.

Seabaugh looked on the wall of his office at Metro Atlanta Ambulance Service, where he is vice president, and studied the picture of himself in a soapbox derby car built for an adult."I said, "˜This would work.' I've got this car I built for adults to race. It's called a celebrity car for people like the mayor to race to open the soapbox derby," Seabaugh said.

Seabaugh's car will become part of history as Robinson and his drums ride in the parade. Devin's father, Gerald D. Robinson will push him in the soapbox derby car with a specially-installed handle.

Band director Zach Cogdill saw the car Tuesday night. "It's perfect," he said. "It can not be more perfect. It's exactly what I wanted. It fits in with the parade. It fits in with the nostalgia of the event."

7. Suurimmaanitchuat Dancers


The Suurimmaanitchuat Dancers of Barrow, Alaska are a 22-member troupe that has performed together for 20 years. They are the only native Alaskan group invited to the inaugural parade. They almost didn't get on the roster. Member Rex Okakok was told over and over that it was too late to apply for the parade. But his persistance paid off as the invitation finally came. The Suurimmaanitchuat Dancers perform traditional Eskimo dances plus some modern innovations, including an Elvis dance and a dance that imitates a stewardess giving pre-flight instructions.

8. 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry


The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was an unit of African-American soldiers with white officers who fought during the Civil War. The group's exploits were brought to the modern public in the 1989 movie Glory. OK, the actual infantry won't be marching in the inaugural parade, but Civil War re-enactors known as 54th's Company A will portray the unit in Tuesday's parade. The re-enactors are based in Boston and formed after seeing the movie Glory. Some of the members are descendants of the original 54th Infantry.

The inaugural parade will begin at 2:30 Tuesday, January 20th and will begin at Lafayette Square, proceed along Pennsylvania Avenue, and will end at the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]