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7 Fictional Holidays for Pop Culture Enthusiasts

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If you’re a pop culture fan, then why not celebrate some of these alternative winter holidays next year?

1. Life Day

There’s no doubt about the impact Star Wars has had on pop culture, but the weirdness that was the CBS Star Wars Holiday Special can’t really claim any credit for that. It is appallingly bad and worth watching just for the campiness. Jumping on the Christmas special bandwagon on November 17, 1978, the folks at CBS aired the two-hour program which focused on Chewbacca’s return to Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day with his family. The holiday features a Tree of Life, wookiees and much spontaneous singing. At any rate, celebrating Life Day is as good a reason as any for breaking out the light sabers and having a party.

2. Verdukian Holiday of Mouth Pleasures

The Secret Santa exchange at the office can be pretty disappointing. (True story: I once received an expired Subway gift card.) If you’d like to get out of it, take a cue from 30 Rock and convert to Verdukianism. Celebrations include meat cubes with pictures of Jimmy Connor, blonde virgins and dental floss, sausage pizza, and plenty of root beer for its healing powers. If things get weird, just renounce your new faith—but not to the police, who will tase you, bro.

3. Festival of the Bells

Fraggle Rock was one of my favorite shows as a kid, and I vaguely remember Episode 301: The Bells of Fraggle Rock. Gobo thinks the festival is sort of silly and useless, so he goes off to find the Great Bell at the heart of Fraggle Rock. Muppety hijinks ensue, culminating in this clip--the near-stoppage of the Rock threatens to end Fraggle life as they know it, but Gobo discovers the Rock can be jump-started again by ringing bells to awaken the Great Bell, who keeps the Rock spinning. You can celebrate similarly, if you so choose.

4. Festivus

Daniel O’Keefe isn’t the name usually associated with Festivus, the secular holiday popularized by Seinfeld. But O’Keefe’s son, who was a writer for the show, included the family-created celebration as part of the storyline in the 1997 episode “The Strike.” Now Festivus is celebrated independently in varying degrees of seriousness, complete with aluminum (stripper) poles, the Feats of Strength, Airing of Grievances, and minor Festivus miracles. If you need help getting started, pick up one of these handy Festivus in a Box kits for $22.95.

5. Chrismahanukwanzakah

If you’re looking for an all-inclusive celebration with no contractual obligation, look no further than Virgin Mobile’s Chrismahanukwanzakah. While celebration details are sketchy, there are gifts of (rather outdated) cell phones for every girl and boy and dreidels made of non-pork meat.

6. Wintersday, Feast of Winter Veil, and Starlight Celebration

These are alt-holidays in MMORPGs, celebrated by players of Guild Wars, World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy XI. Each feature holiday-only items, special quests, and festive in-game decorations. A day spent trash-talking via the Internet and eating junk food actually sounds like a pretty good time. The rare items and pseudo-Christmas trees are like a bonus.

7. Refrigerator Day

Remember the early-1990s ABC sitcom Dinosaurs? They didn't have religious celebrations, what with pre-dating man and all, so they set aside a day to honor the refrigerator, the greatest invention of Jurassic times. Celebrations include decorating the fridge with sparkly things, making up a refrigerator mold pie, and presents! Watch the full episode here if you can handle the out-of-sync audio.

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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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