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The Many Meanings of May Day

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May Day means many things to many people, from pagans to factory workers to troubled boaters. David Clark is here to explain it all.

May Day for Pagans

Wherever the winters are cold, wet, or overcast, the prime weeks of spring inspire elation and revelry. Finally, we can stop being irritable, morose winter brutes and commence our exuberant sun worship.

So around the end of April and beginning of May, the Romans honored their flower and fertility goddess Flora with dances, processions, games, and sundry merriment. Lots of this merriment involved prostitutes, rarely clothed. Of course everyone thinks the "Floralia" festival had roots in older earth and goddess worshipping cultures; defenders of Roman Virtue have blamed the Floralia's rampant licentiousness -- including nude mimes! -- on those randy and uncivil primitives. Arguably, the Romans had lewd habits all their own, even before Caligula -- but we won't get into that.

On May 1st there were also sacrifices to the obscure Italian earth goddess Maia by the priests of Vulcan (the fire and volcano god, thought to be Maia's beau). We don't know much else about what the Romans thought of her, except that she's the one who gave the month its name.

The Celtic druids had their own May Day holiday, Beltane -- which translates to bright or lucky fire. They lit bonfires all over the hills to honor the sun, and they walked their cattle between the flames to provide some magical protection from diseases and witchcraft, before releasing the beasts to pasture for the season. People sometimes walked between the fires, as well, if they were feeling particularly wary of the coming year or were suffering a spate of bad luck. Some say that the Maypole tradition -- in which a tall pole serves as center for fertility-oriented rites -- began with the Celts. Some people will blame everything fertile or phallic on the pagans.

May Day for Christians

During medieval times, May Day festivities took off in England. At the crack of dawn everyone would "go a-maying," gathering flowers and greenery and choosing a Maypole. Women would also wash their faces in fresh spring dew to improve their complexions -- and men would try to seduce them. (Many poems about May Day festivities have made it into the scholarly canon of English Lit., and thus college classrooms -- and almost all of them are not-so-subtle efforts to seduce a virgin.) Children hung flower baskets from door-handles, whether to fend off evil spirits or spread joy. And there were games, contests, dressed-up cows, sports, jesters, and wild costumes. A Queen of May was appointed to preside over festivities, and this practice has been connected with ancient worship of Maia. But by the middle ages, Maia was well-blended with Maid Marian. Robin Hood and his forest-dwelling bandits would also show up to bolster the merriment.

maypole.jpgThe Maypole was at the center of all this -- and it was against that prominent shaft that many Puritans directed their righteous ire. They hated May Day with fist-shaking passion. They loathed the fleshy indulgence of it: what could irk a Puritan more than this celebration of "the birds and the bees"? (This is the basis of the 1973 cult hit The Wicker Man.) In 1644, the English Puritans in power were able to outlaw May Day for a little while. But that didn't hold.

Pilgrims to America brought this tension with them, and in the early colonies one May Day caused quite the scandal. In 1627 Thomas Morton -- who had established the non-puritanical colony of Merrymount to rival Plymouth -- set up a Maypole and celebrated the May Day cheerfully (and beer-fully) around it. The gossip is that Merrymounters even danced with squaws! Of course the neighboring Puritans would have none of it. So the raging John Endicott (future governor of Massachusetts) strode into Merrymount and chopped down the Maypole. He re-dubbed Morton's colony Mount Dagon, after a god of the sinful Philistines who died in Noah's flood, and soon managed to have Morton himself expelled back to England on charges of selling weapons and booze to the natives.

May Day for Workers and Communists

may-day.jpgA decidedly non-pagan, asexual May Day celebration is that of International Workers' Day, a holiday created by socialists and labor organizers in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot of May 4th, 1886 (also called the Haymarket Massacre or, more cautiously, the Haymarket Affair).

In post-Civil War America, the Industrial Revolution was in full blaze and workers were suffering. Machines were replacing skilled laborers, hours were increasing, conditions were worsening, and the wages were inadequate. The revolutionary ideas of socialism and Marxism caught on with many of these disenfranchised and antagonized laborers, and the movement for an eight-hour day had gained powerful momentum. With all of this brewing, disputes and riots ignited again and again. Then at a large protest in Chicago's Haymarket Square someone threw a dynamite bomb at the cops, which triggered a battle that left at least twelve dead and many more wounded. The riot was followed by a hugely publicized trial and the eventual hanging of four anarchists, the "Haymarket Martyrs."

This violent clash in Chicago became a powerful symbol for radical labor groups. A few years later, the Second International officially initiated the tradition of May Day labor demonstrations that continue still.

May Day for Patriots

Of course, labor demonstrations often feature strong showings from socialists, communists, and anarchists. So during the post-WWII Red Scare, the United States counteracted Soviet-influenced May Day rallies by designating May 1st as Loyalty Day, a day during which all Americans, even disgruntled workers, are to remember their vows to the Nation -- which should trump any allegiance to those insidious international rebel alliances. Loyalty Day probably didn't have the intended effect of inspiring Soviet spies to turn Prodigal Son, but plenty of Americans tend to prefer a good parading, flag-waving, and hot-dog-eating holiday to some serious-minded May Day workers' rights protest.

May Day for Life-Threatening Emergencies

Why is "mayday!" an international distress call? It doesn't derive from Puritans warning each other of druidic daylight orgies, and it's not Cold War Army code for a communist uprising thick with bomb-throwing anarchists -- it's just a simple mispronunciation of the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me!"

How do you do it? In a life-threatening emergency (please no sprained ankle alarms), just plug into a radio distress channel and say "mayday" three times, then the name of your boat three times, if you're lucky enough to be on a boat, then give the information a rescuer will need to save you. If the danger isn't immediately life-threatening, you can make a simple "pan-pan" call. Or better yet, ask your mother for advice.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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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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May 23, 2017
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