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Christmas in Australia

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Christmas in Europe and North America is celebrated as a winter holiday, and includes imagery of snow, long nights, and warm clothes and fattening food to fight the cold. Australia, however, is in the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas falls in the middle of summer. Often a blazing hot summer! But Australia was settled by immigrants from many countries who brought Christmas traditions with them. Some of these traditions stay the same, some were adapted for the weather, and some customs have emerged that are clearly Australian. Image by Flickr user Sarah_Ackerman.

Santa Claus

In Australia, the summer Christmas is too hot for reindeer. At least that's what they tell me. Instead, Santa makes his run pulled by six big kangaroos. This photo of the Australian Embassy was taken in Washington, D.C. Santa look pretty good on a surfboard!

Rolf Harris wrote a song using this scenario, called "Six White Boomers."

Carols by Candlelight

Carols by Candlelight is a Australian tradition in which townspeople gather together to sing. Radio announcer Norman Banks held the first municipal gathering in 1938. The story goes that in 1937, as he was walking home from a late shift in Melbourne, Banks saw an elderly woman singing "Away in a Manger" alone by the window in her home, her face illuminated by a candle. Banks thought about the many people who must be celebrating the holiday alone, and organized the event for the next year. It wasn't easy, but he enlisted the help of his employers and the mayor to get the approval of the city council. The first Carols by Candlelight in 1938 saw 10,000 participants singing along with a choir, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band, and two soloists at midnight in the Alexandra Gardens. It went over so well that 40,000 people attended in 1939. The video clip above was recorded at Melbourne's Carols by Candlelight in 2010; it gives you an idea of how large the event is today.


From there, the tradition spread to other cities. The Carols in the Domain event held at the Domain Gardens in Sydney is broadcast across Australia and around the world. It takes place this Saturday night. Image of the event in Adelaide 2007 by Flickr user Hazel Motes.

The Christmas Feast


What do you eat for Christmas in the middle of summer? Australians seem to fall into three categories for Christmas dinner. Some stick with traditions from the old countries: Roast ham or turkey with dressing and cooked vegetables. Others serve traditional ham and turkey as cold cuts with raw vegetables, sometimes eaten late at night or as a picnic to beat the heat. A third segment embraces the holiday weather with seafood or other types of barbecue and plenty of beer. Which is still traditional, but thoroughly Australian. However, when families and friends gather, all three traditions can be observed! Image by Flickr user bess grant.

One holiday dish that is completely Australian is the Christmas Damper. Damper is a soda bread that could be made with simple ingredients by those traveling the vast expanses of Australia. The holiday version is a remembrance of tough times on the continent. For Christmas, damper is made into a wreath shape and decorated in Christmas motifs. It is not universally served, though, because of the heat of baking. Bakeries will provide it if you want.

Christmas in July

There's another solution to the lack of winter weather during Christmas: celebrate it again at another time! Christmas in July has become tradition down under. The story goes that some Irish visitors to the Blue Mountains in New South Wales saw a snowfall in July of 1977. That's not out of the ordinary for mountains in the Southern Hemisphere, but the tourists were reminded of Christmas out of season. They requested a traditional Christmas dinner from their hotel, which they enjoyed so much they returned the following July. The celebration of Christmas in July was repeated in the Blue Mountain region as a tourist draw, but locals loved it, too.

Now people from all over Australia and beyond come to the area for Yulefest, to enjoy a Northern Hemisphere Christmas with skiing and snowmen when the weather is right for it -which spills over into June and August. The tradition has spread to the cities as well, as you can see by the Santas in Sydney Harbor.

Merry Xmas

Image by Flickr user aussiegall.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]