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7 Strange Christmas Traditions

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A few years ago, I wrote about strange Christmas traditions like Krampus, Caga Tia, the Caganer, Mari Lwyd, Zwarte Piet, the pickle ornament, the TV Yule Log, and Christmas in Japan (which involves several odd customs). Since then, I've uncovered a few more that may fall outside your experience.

1. Iceland: The Christmas Cat

Jólakötturinn is the Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. He might eat you! See, in many Icelandic families, those who finished all their work on time receive new clothes for Christmas; those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, their parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas, and they would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

2. Sweden: Donald Duck Cartoons

A custom doesn't have to be all that old to be traditional. In Sweden, every Christmas Eve, families gather around the TV at 3PM to watch Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul. In English, that's "Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas." We know it as the 1958 Disney presentation From All of Us to All of You, a collection of cartoons that, for the most part, have nothing to do with Christmas. The most popular is the one in which an Aracuan Bird bedevils Donald Duck. Many Swedes can recite the dubbed-in lines by heart. The tradition began in 1959, when Sweden had only a couple of TV channels and there were just enough homes with TVs for the Disney special to become a shared experience. Since then, any time the public TV channel considered not airing Kalle Anka, viewers rallied to have it restored to the schedule.

3. Finland: Visit a Cemetery

You may have a family feast on Christmas Eve, or sing Christmas carols at a community gathering, or drive around to see the lights. In Finland, the family is very likely to take a trip to a cemetery. The purpose is to light candles in remembrance of deceased relatives, but some folks without locally-buried kin visit cemeteries anyway to enjoy the candles. Many graveyards have a special place where candles can be placed in honor of people buried elsewhere. In Helsinki, around 75% of families visit a cemetery at Christmastime, usually on Christmas Eve, so authorities arrange for police to provide traffic control.

4. Latvia: Mummers

The tradition of mummers is associated with the winter solstice more than Christmas. It dates back to pagan times when people would try to employ magic to encourage the sun to return before daylight completely disappeared. In Britain, mummers perform small dramas about the struggle between the sun and the forces of winter -a tradition that survives to this day in some areas. In Latvia, Christmastime is still a solstice holiday, and is often celebrated from December 22nd through the 25th. Customs of a Latvian Christmas are usually traced to activities that encourage the return of the Sun Maiden. Latvian mummers are more like Halloween trick-or-treaters, going from house to house wearing masks, usually disguised as some kind of animal or the spirit of death. They play music and bestow blessings on the homes they visited, and are given food to eat.

5. Sweden: The Gävle Goat

The Yule goat is a Scandinavian tradition that varies over time and place. The goat brings gifts to children; the goat is a symbolic sacrifice; the goat is a prank that you sneak into a neighbor's yard. In the Swedish town of Gävle, the goat became an effigy made of straw, built in the town square every year since 1966. At 13 meters tall, the Gävle Goat towers over the townspeople. The very first straw goat in 1966 was mysteriously set on fire at midnight on New Year's Eve. Since then, the goat has been erected every year, and burned by unknown individuals about half of those years. Locals take sides, with some protecting the goat with schemes like soaking it in water, while others plot its demise. Yet others make bets on whether the goat will survive into the new year. Both results lead to publicity and increased tourism, which has led other Swedish town to put up their own straw Yule goats. The Gävle goat of 2011 didn't last all that long; it was burned down on December 2nd.

6. Iceland: Yule Lads

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are Icelandic trolls. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule cat. However, in the 20th century, culture creep brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure called Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. He was the carrot while the Yule Lads were the stick. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ...if they are good boys and girls. This gift-giving used to last for 13 days straight! That's because there are 13 Yule Lads, and they each have a name and distinct personality.

7. United States: Snap-Dragon

Snap-dragon (or flap-dragon) was a game in which people tried to snatch raisins out of a bowl of burning brandy. A player would then pop the raisins in the mouth to extinguish them! The game is played with the lights turned off, and a successful player will be seen with blue flames dripping from their hands and mouth. The game was mainly played in England, Canada, and the U.S. from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The custom of playing snap-dragon at Christmas or Twelfth Night died out because of the obvious danger, but survives here and there. Image by Flickr user Transaction Fraud.

These customs may seem strange to us, but when you think about it, some of our Christmas traditions are liable to be just as strange to someone from a non-English-speaking nation. A fat man who drinks Coca-Cola fits down a chimney? You give people cakes made of fruit that you know they'll never eat? People put blinking lights on their homes and sync them to pop songs? That's really strange!

See also: 8 Truly Strange Christmas Customs and 9 Holiday Characters From Around the World.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]