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9 Obscure Holidays in December (Besides Christmas)

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There are obscure holidays, and then there are really obscure holidays. I used to think Canadian Boxing Day and Three Kings' Day were weird; in reality, there are so many holidays stuffed into our calendar that you could spend the whole year observing them and still miss a few. Here are a few of my favorite upcoming weird holidays.

December 5: Bathtub Party Day
The online herbalists at wellcat.com copyrighted this holiday in order, I have to assume, to inspire people to buy essential oils and fancy salts to add to their bathwater. I'm not sure what their definition of "party" is, but the way I see it, there's a 50% chance that Bathtub Party Day is the only holiday on our calendar which advocates having multiple, simultaneous sex partners. (Speaking of bathtubs, December 5 is also repeal day, which celebrates the end of Prohibition and the need to create bathtub gin.)

December 6: St. Nicholas Day
This is weird on two counts: not only does St. Nick have his own day, but it's also not December 25, the day we normally associate with this most roly-poly of saints. Also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker, he was a Greek bishop whose reputation for selfless gift-giving made him the inspiration for Santa Claus. For his work helping the poor, he's also the patron saint of pawnbrokers (for those of you who didn't realize that pawnbrokers needed divine intercession).

December 7: National Cotton Candy Day
Invented in 1897 and originally marketed as "fairy floss," cotton candy first became popular at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. It was officially renamed in the 1920s.

December 8: Take it in the Ear Day
I have no idea what this day means, who invented it, or what I'm supposed to do to celebrate. (Or what, exactly, I am meant to be taking into my ear.) There is, however, a nifty tee-shirt you can buy commemorating the event, which makes me suspect that perhaps tee-shirt designers are the ones behind TIITE day.

December 12: Poinsettia Day
Poinsettias have long been associated with the holiday season, but that's not the reason behind this day. It was created by an act of Congress in 1851 in honor of Joel Roberts Poinsett, a United States ambassador to Mexico, who first brought the plants back from our neighbor to the south. He died on December 12, 1851.

December 21: Forefathers' Day
If you know your historical dates, you'll know that December 21, 1620 was the day the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. First celebrated in 1769 in honor of the pilgrims, this was an ill-fated holiday that eventually fell into obscurity in favor of Thanksgiving. (Do we really need to get excited about the pilgrims more than once a year?)

December 21: National Flashlight Day
This sounds like just another random holiday until you realize that December 21 is also the Winter Solstice -- the darkest and shortest day of the year. As long as you're celebrating, here's some fun flashlight trivia: it was invented in 1898 by Joshua Lionel Cowan, who also invented the Lionel train.

December 23: Festivus (for the rest of us)
Seinfeld fans, of which there are many, will get it right away. Created by staff writer Daniel O'Keefe, it refers to a fake holiday made up by his father Dan in 1966 to celebrate his first date with his future wife.

The holiday includes novel practices such as the "Airing of Grievances", in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed him or her over the past year. Also, after the Festivus meal, the "Feats of Strength" are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is actually pinned. These conventions originated with the TV episode. The original holiday featured far more peculiar practices, as detailed in the younger Daniel O'Keefe's book The Real Festivus, which provides a first-person account of an early version of the Festivus holiday as celebrated by the O'Keefe family, and how O'Keefe amended or replaced details of his father's invention to create the Seinfeld episode.

December 29: Pepper Pot Day
This real, actual holiday commemorates a thick, spicy soup that was created to feed the Continental Army during the fantastically harsh winter of 1777-78. George Washington's chef combined scraps of tripe, small bits of meat and some peppercorn with spices to create "the soup that won the war."

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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