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11 Offbeat December Holidays You Still Have Time to Celebrate

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You don't need us to remind you about the major December holidays. But you do need us to tell you that it's Monkey Day.

© ARNE DEDERT/epa/Corbis

1. December 14th: Monkey Day
According to the official Monkey Day website, Monkey Day is an “annual celebration of all things simian, a festival of primates, a chance to scream like a monkey and throw feces at whomever you choose.” The origins of the holiday are unknown, though it has been observed since at least 2003.

2. December 15th: National Cat Herder’s Day
Cat herding is as difficult as it sounds. Founded by a California couple, National Cat Herder’s Day isn’t just for people who actually wrangle felines, but also those whose lives or jobs feel as if they are constantly herding around cats. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, perhaps it will help to add the celebration of this obscure holiday to your Thursday schedule.

3. December 15th: Bill of Rights Day
On December 15th, 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified by three-quarters of the States, giving us the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution. This is a day to honor those certain inalienable rights like freedom of press and a speedy trial by jury. The Bill of Rights Day site has suggestions on how to celebrate, such as ranking your rights, BOR print-outs for your coworkers, and trivia!

4. December 16th: National Cover Anything With Chocolate Day

Not to be confused with National Chocolate Day on October 28th, this holiday is your free pass to dip anything in chocolate you otherwise wouldn’t the other 364 days of the year.

5. December 17th: Underdog Day
Today is the day to honor the unsung heroes, the folks in second place and the men/women behind the men/women. This holiday was reportedly created in 1976 and inspired by Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ faithful sidekick. Some reports claim the holiday is on 19th or the 21st. Maybe you just make next week Underdog Week.

6. December 18th: National Wear a Plunger on Your Head Day
Allegedly there once was a Hallmark card for National Wear a Plunger on Your Head Day, therefore it must be a real holiday. If you choose to celebrate, let's everyone agree to use new plungers.

7. December 20th: Louisiana Purchase Day
On this day in 1803, France officially relinquished its control of New Orleans to the United States, thus giving America over 800,000 square miles of new territory. The Louisiana Purchase did not actually include what we know today as the entire state of Louisiana; only the territory west of the Mississippi, as Spain still had ownership of the rest of it.

8. December 22nd: The Shortest Day of the Year
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, December 22nd is the shortest day of the year — the day when the Earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun. While there’s no official ceremonial observance, it is believed that mystical structures such as Stonehenge and Newgrange were built with the sunrise and set of winter solstice in mind. And for all the Jim Henson fans out there, you can awaken the Great Bell at the center of Fraggle Rock by giving gifts and ringing tiny bells.

9. December 22nd: Head to Plymouth for Forefathers' Day
Observed primarily in Plymouth, Massachusetts, since the late 1700s, Forefathers' Day commemorates the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in 1620. The traditional celebratory dish served for Forefathers' Day is Plymouth Succotash, with corned beef, fowl, salt pork, beans, potatoes and green-top turnips.

10. December 23rd: A Day to Air All Grievances
Then of course, there’s always Festivus for the rest of us. Invented by fictional Seinfeld character Frank Costanza, this secular holiday that involves gathering around an aluminum pole and airing out your grievances has continued to gain a following since its introduction in 1997. If you haven’t seen the episode, there’s an entire website that spells out how to celebrate Festivus from start to finish. (Note: It wasn't technically invented by Frank Costanza. As reader Mike points out, it was the creation of Seinfeld writer Dan O'Keefe's father. Test your Festivus knowledge with this quiz.)

11. December 26th: Alms for the Poor and Goals for the Soccer Players
Boxing Day may have been inspired by King Wenceslas, who one December 26th decided to gather up all of his leftover food, wine and gifts and bequeath them to a peasant. While he inspired the holiday, it is believed the Church of England technically founded it. There’s also speculation that it happened to be the day aristocrats give presents to their servants, and Boxing Day evolved from there. Today, Boxing Day has no real religious connotation and is more of an extra day off to drink and watch sports. Nonetheless it is still a national holiday in the UK and many countries once part of the British Empire.
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Does reading this list make you think just about anyone can start his or her own offbeat holiday? You're probably right. Feel free to lobby for your own new day of celebration in the comments.

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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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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