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10 Unusual Traditions for Ringing in the New Year around the World

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Did you know that in Switzerland people ring in the new year by dropping a dollop of cream on the floor? Or how about how Armenians bake special bread with "good luck" and "best wishes" stamped into it? We thought you didn't. So in honor of 2010, here are 10 unusual traditions observed by different countries around the world.

1. Romania

In Romania, some believe that if you toss coins into the river, you'll have good luck throughout the coming year. Even more impressive: some peasants use December 31st to predict the coming year's weather by systematically peeling, salting and reading the skins of 12 onions. According to this source, "On St. Vasile's Day or New Year's Day, a person who is efficient in witchcraft and spells checks the level of the liquid left by the melted salt in each of the onions peels." The level helps them determine the climate conditions in the new year.

2. Spain

210px-Alfonso_XIII_de_España_(cropped)In Spain, as the clock strikes 12, people eat twelve grapes—one for each month of the year, and for each toll of the bell. The tradition, which is believed to bring good luck, can be traced back to the year 1909 when there was a bountiful harvest in the town of Alicante and Alfonso XIII, the Spanish King, gave grapes to his peeps on New Year's Eve.

3. Switzerland

Picture 3Ever hear of dropping a dollop of cream on the floor to ring in the new year with good luck, wealth and peace? Well that's what some do in Switzerland -- it's thought to bring a year of abundance. (Hey, don't laugh... provided everyone cleans up his or her dollop, it's a lot more civilized than screaming along with a trillion other people in Times Square.) Some Swiss also observe the tradition of dressing up in costumes to invoke good spirits and chase evil energies.

4. Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico, they blast car horns and boat whistles, ring church bells and beat drums to drive away evil spirits and demons. In some parts of the country they also throw pails of water from their windows at midnight in a bid to chase away the evil eye. Puerto Ricans also have an unusual tradition for bringing good luck in the coming year: they drop backwards into the breaking waves as the clock strikes 12.

5. Belgium

Belgium might be the only country where farmers wish their livestock happy new year to ensure 365 days of good health and well-being. Well, outside of India, where they bless cows frequently, and, of course, Sesame Street, where Bert and Ernie are always wishing the animals a happy this or that. Belgians are also known to exchange gifts on New Year's, which they celebrate as Sint Sylvester Vooranvond (St. Sylvester Eve).

6. France

pancake-800wiThe French mix health and wealth and usher in the new beginning with a stack of pancakes. (Note to self: get rich quick scheme no. 145: open an iHop in Paris) Another unique custom in France is kissing under the mistletoe as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve, sorta like Christmas traditions elsewhere.

7. Armenia

In Armenia, a special kind of bread is baked with good luck and best wishes stamped on it. Traditionally, people conduct a "˜Ritual of Fire' on New Year's Eve where all troubles pertaining to the old year are symbolically burnt. This is not to be confused with the "Ring of Fire' in the fish tank on Finding Nemo.

8. Bolivia

yellow New Breddox Boxer Yellow FIn Bolivia, dolls made of straw and wood are hung outside homes for good luck. Coins are also baked into sweets. Whoever finds the coins will be prosperous in the New Year. It is also considered auspicious to leave 3 stones outside the door for health, prosperity and love. Other Bolivians elect to wear yellow-colored undies to bring themselves a new year full of money. Red undies, on the other hand, supposedly bring love.

9. Portugal

carlIn the northern parts of Portugal, children traditionally sing carols as they visit houses where they are given coins and treats. The songs they sing are called janeiros and are said to bring good luck. As in Spain, eating 12 grapes at midnight ensures 12 months of happiness in the coming year.

10. Japan

Not unlike what happens in Chicago after every Cub's season, the Japanese have "˜forget-the-year' parties and generally consider it a time to forgive and forget. They hang straw ropes across their homes' façades to ward away evil spirits and welcome good luck and happiness.

If you like these kinds of lists, there's plenty more where this one came from. Follow me on Twitter: @resila - and follow mental_floss here to stay up-to-date.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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