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6 Other Things Dropped on New Year's Eve

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The most famous New Year's Eve “drop” is the 11,875-pound icosahedral geodesic sphere that descends the flag pole at One Times Square in Manhattan. But New York isn’t the only place where objects are dropped on New Year’s Eve (and no, we’re not counting your drunken uncle’s trousers in this list). Here’s what folks elsewhere around these United States will be watching as they count down the remaining seconds of 2010:

1. Georgia’s Peach

Atlanta’s Peach Drop draws about 100,000 people downtown every year, while several million more watch it from the comfort of home via the America One television network. The 800 lb. peach, which is repainted and refurbished every year, is made from Fiberglas and foam, the same materials used to manufacture most commercial surfboards.

2. The Buffalo Ball

Buffalo, New York, has been dropping its own ball since 1988. Accompanied by a massive fireworks display, the ball falls from the top of the Iskalo Electric Tower on Washington Street in downtown Buffalo. Last year’s event was almost canceled due to the economy and the ethics of a cash-strapped city spending the $40,000 necessary for security and sanitation crews, but local businesses opened their wallets and the show went on as scheduled. Unlike its sister in Times Square, the Buffalo Ball takes a full 58 seconds to descend, which helps to build the crowd tension to fever pitch once the final 10 second countdown begins.

3. Marsupial Moment

To some of us, they are pointy-nosed sharp-toothed nuisances who nest in our garages and are a step-cousin once removed from a rat. But to the residents of Brasstown, North Carolina, the opossum is a New Year’s Eve icon. The tradition started in 1990 when Clay Logan, owner of the Citgo station on Greasy Creek Road (honest!) in this small Appalachian town said (in that true “can-do” American spirit), “If New York City can drop a big ball on New Year’s Eve, why can’t we drop a ‘possum?”

So each year around November 30, Mr. Logan captures a live opossum in a DNR-approved trap and feeds it top-quality cat food until New Year’s Eve, when he transfers the ‘possum to a Plexiglas box, which he lowers via rope from the roof of his gas station just seconds prior to midnight. The last seconds of the year are counted down with appropriate ceremony by Logan and the assembled crowd of hundreds as the opossum descends to the ground. He is then released back into the wild, perhaps a bit confused by his brush with celebrity.

Of course, any occasion involving a live animal is bound to get noticed by PETA sooner or later, so in recent years Mr. Logan has obtained both state and federal permits for his ‘possum drop, and all concerned authorities have observed, inspected and agreed that the little varmint was treated humanely.

4. Peep Show


Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s New Year’s Eve tradition is fairly young, just like the 25 lb. illuminated Fiberglas baby Peep they’ve been lowering from a crane since 2005. If a Peep seems more in keeping with Easter, keep in mind that Just Born Inc., the company that makes the confection, is headquartered in Bethlehem and is one of the city’s major employers outside of the health care industry. A freshly-emerged baby chick is certainly a happier and more optimistic symbol of all things new than, say, a papier-mâché aspirin.

5. Reelin’ in the Year

There is always something fishy going on in Port Clinton, Ohio, the Walleye Capital of the World. And the town has been packed to the gills every New Year’s Eve since 1996, when Wylie the 20-foot, 600-pound Fiberglas walleye (constructed by a local taxidermist) was first lowered at the stroke of midnight. The festival includes everything from walleye sandwiches to walleye wine to walleye popcorn on sale for those willing to shell out a fin or less.

6. From Olive Us in Oklahoma

The small northern Oklahoma city of Bartlesville is home to the 221 foot high Price Tower, the only realized skyscraper designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. And it is from the top of this building that a giant olive is lowered into a martini glass to ring in the New Year. Although the public is invited gather outside to watch the actual Olive descent for free, the overall indoor celebration is definitely upscale, with a five-course dinner served including prime rib, Maine lobster, grilled Alaskan halibut, blackened Ahi tuna Caesar salad, a selection of gourmet cheeses and fine champagne. Sounds like the type of crowd that prefers not to be shaken or stirred.
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Anything interesting being dropped at midnight in your neck of the woods?

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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