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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
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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