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The Lessons of Kwanzaa, as Taught by TV

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December 26th wasn't just Boxing Day; it also marked the first day of the pan-African holiday celebrating African culture known as Kwanzaa. Founded in the mid-1960s by Maulana Karenga, a black studies professor at Cal State Long Beach, this holiday lasts from the day after Christmas through January 2nd. Each of the 7 days is assigned a principle to be honored: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

Just as Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, American TV is relatively new to trying to capitalize on it. We've managed to dig up 7 television attempts to incorporate Kwanzaa into holiday programming.

1. Sesame Street Means Double the Kwanzaa

In Season 34, Sesame Street produced a segment in which a child explained the traditions of Kwanzaa and how his family celebrates:

Later in that same season, Elmo showed off a traditional Kwanzaa dance:

2. Even Rugrats Can Celebrate Kwanzaa

In their 7th season, Nickelodeon's gang of ageless toddlers the Rugrats branched out from the Christmas holiday episode with "A Rugrats Kwanzaa." Tommy Pickles' neighbor Susie Carmichael gets a visit from her Great Aunt T., who came to teach the whole Carmichael family about Kwanzaa. Airing in 2001, this particular episode was one of the first on mainstream television to feature Kwanzaa. It also inspired the aptly titled book The Rugrats' First Kwanzaa.

3. In the Future, There Are Kwanzaa Robots

Futurama never dedicated an entire episode to the holiday, but in "A Tale of Two Santas," they introduced an entirely new Kwanzaa character. Kwanzaabot, as voiced by 90s rapper Coolio, shows up at the Conrads' Kwanzaa party to drop some traditional knowledge on their guests.

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Hermes' Kwanzaa Party
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4. Kwanzaa Is Not Materialistic (Unlike the Holiday That Precedes It)

Based on the youth of Chris Rock, the show Everybody Hates Chris used Kwanzaa to heighten the notorious thriftiness of young Chris's father. The patriarch Julius announces that the family will celebrate Kwanzaa instead of Christmas that year - once he discovers Kwanzaa is a much more cost-effective holiday.

5. Christmas and Kwanzaa Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Along with the Rugrats, animated Disney show The Proud Family was one of the first mainstream TV shows to dedicate an entire episode to Kwanzaa. When the Prouds take in a homeless family on Christmas, the family comes back the next day to return the favor - by teaching the Prouds about Kwanzaa.

6. Be Careful Who You Invite to Your Kwanzaa Party

On Saturday Night Live, Tim Meadows dropped by Weekend Update as “Kwanzaa Timmy” to explain the traditions of Kwanzaa - in song. You'll laugh, you'll learn and you'll feel slightly taken advantage of.

7. There’s No Such Thing as Kwanzaa Cake

Celebrity chef Sandra Lee caused an uproar with her Kwanzaa cake recipe a few years ago. Pretty much the only thing "Kwanzaa" about it was her use of Kwanzaa-colored candles. Some critics cried racism based on her ingredients, but almost everyone agreed the recipe was just terrible, and terribly stupid.

Since then, Food Network aired a much less maligned episode about Kwanzaa Traditions:

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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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:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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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]

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