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7 July 4th Traditions from Around the Nation

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This weekend, people across the United States will be celebrating the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with fireworks displays, picnics, and parades.  Some communities celebrate in other ways that you may not be familiar with.

Murrells Inlet, South Carolina: Parade of Boats

Many communities have a Fourth of July parade. Murrells Inlet has one as well, but it is held in the local creek as boats line up to be decorated, spectated, and appreciated. This year's annual boat parade will begin at 5PM, which is high tide. The annual event has been held since 1984. In recent years there have been as many as 125 registered parade entries, with more boats joining in at the last minute.

Mescalero, New Mexico: Puberty Rites

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At the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, Independence Day celebrations include a coming-of-age ceremony for teenage girls.

On the first and the last days of the public portion of the ceremony, each girl runs four times around a basket filled with sacred items of the creation, symbolizing the four stages of life set by the White Painted Woman. Each night, the girls, godmothers and singers enter the Holy Lodge, or Ceremonial Teepee, where the girls dance and singers beat the rhythm with deer-hoof rattles.

The ceremonies are open to the public. The reservation also hosts an annual rodeo on July fourth. See more pictures of the ceremony.

New England: Salmon

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The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July goes back to the beginnings of the holiday in New England. The date coincides with salmon running thick in the rivers during midsummer in Maine and other New England states. In recent years, Atlantic salmon are declining, but New Englanders stay with the traditional meal; they just tend to eat Alaskan or Pacific salmon these days. What started as the tradition of "eating locally" is now just "tradition". If you'd like to try a little bit of New England in your holiday, here's a recipe.

San Francisco: The Mimes Return

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Every year, the San Francisco Mime Troupe opens their performing season on July 4th with a free show. This year's production is called "Too Big To Fail" and will debut at Dolores Park at 2PM. The experimental theater group was founded in 1959, and has performed in San Francisco city parks since winning an obscenity case in 1963. The San Francisco Mime Troupe does not perform silently or paint their faces white, but their productions are movement-based. See a a sample of their work in this video from their 2008 production "Red State".

Coney Island: Hot Dogs

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It can be said that hot dogs are a traditional food across the nation on the Fourth of July, but in Coney Island, the Fourth of July means Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Last year, reigning champion Joey Chestnut of San Jose, California bested six-time winner Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan in a sudden-death round after each had ingested 59 hotdogs in the regulation ten-minute period. Both men will compete this Saturday for the 94th annual contest in Coney Island.

New Orleans: Essence Music Festival

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More than a quarter-million people attended the annual Essence Music Festival in New Orleans last year. The event has been held annually since 1995, sponsored by Essence magazine. The music lineup for this year includes Beyonce, Lionel Richie, Al Green, Salt N Pepa, Anita Baker, Solange, En Vogue, and quite a few other stars scheduled for this weekend. The festival also offers a series of free seminars during the daytime before the music starts, featuring speakers on a variety of subjects.

South Central Kentucky: Computer Trap Shoot

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For about a decade now, a group of friends in south central Kentucky have used the Fourth of July as an occasion to have some fun with electronic equipment that is obsolete or beyond repair. They gather these items all year long, then take them deep into the wilderness of central Kentucky each Independence Day. The components are launched into the air and used for target practice, which is both a sporting event and a way to vent frustration over hi-tech workplace annoyances. See another video here. Sadly, this year's event has been canceled because the host has to work.

How does your community celebrate the Fourth of July?

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

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.

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