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23 Bizarre Things Ceremonially Dropped on New Year's Eve

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Don’t live anywhere near New York City, but still desperate to see something - anything - drop during a countdown to 2012 on New Year’s Eve?

We can help. (Well, we can help some of you. You might have to go on a road trip.) Check out these places that have put their own twists on the rather odd tradition of hoisting a random, giant object up in the air to celebrate the beginning of a new year.

Image credit: Matt Smith/Express-Times /Landov

1. A giant Peep in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Peeps’ parent company, Just Born, calls the eastern Pennsylvania town home. Though Peeps come in shapes to suit every holiday these days, the drop is done with a traditional chick that flashes different colors at midnight.

2. A three-foot tall, thirty-pound wooden flea in Eastover, North Carolina. Yeah, it’s a real head scratcher, unless you know that the town was called Flea Hill until the 1920s. I don’t know about you, but I think I’d let that nickname die.

3. A 350-pound electronic Moon Pie in Mobile, Alabama.

Why a Moon Pie? According to PR Newswire, the tasty snack cake is the “favored throw” at the Mardi Gras parade (never mind that whole bead thing), which originated in Mobile. Call me crazy, but I think they need to switch to a real 350-pound Moon Pie.

4. A real (dead) carp in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Most carp don’t see 15 seconds of fame, let alone 15 minutes. But every year in Prairie du Chien, Lucky the Carp is the center of attention when he’s lowered onto a throne to celebrate the new year. It’s the culmination of a week of activities, which includes events such as hanging carp ornaments on a pine tree, the Carp Plunge (like a polar bear plunge) and busting open a carp piñata. As far as we know, the piñata contains candy, not carp.

5. An olive in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. It descends from the top of Price Tower, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, and falls neatly into a martini glass.

6. A beach ball in Panama City Beach, Florida. Paying homage to the tourist industry that keeps the town hopping, Panama City Beach drops their 800-pound beach ball at midnight. Those who prefer beach balls of the non-deadly variety can attend the children’s drop at 8:30, when hundreds of inflatables are released from overhead nets.

7. A cherry blossom in Macon, Georgia. Perhaps, like me, you thought Washington, D.C., was the cherry blossom hotspot of the U.S. Like me, you’d be wrong. Macon actually boasts way more cherry trees than D.C. does - to the tune of about 300,000 trees in all.

8. A pineapple in Honolulu, Hawaii. Though this just started last year, the Kahala Hotel hopes that dropping a large version of Hawaii’s signature fruit will become a state tradition.

9. A sardine in Eastport, Maine. The area has sardine fishing and canning roots, but Eastport also drops a Maple Leaf as a friendly gesture to their Canadian neighbors across the bay.

10. A wrench in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. Get it? Mechanicsburg?

11. A glowing duck decoy in Havre de Grace, Maryland. Havre de Grace boasts a Pat Vincenti Duck Decoy store. It's also home to the Duck Decoy Museum.

12. A live possum in a cage in Brasstown, North Carolina, the possum capital of the world. Though the little guy is fed and released post-drop, PETA has petitioned the town to stop torturing the critter.

13. A peach in Atlanta, Georgia. Go figure, right?

14. A glowing pinecone in Flagstaff, Arizona. In case you’re missing the connection, here’s a bit of trivia for you: Flagstaff sits in one of the largest Ponderosa Pine forests in the world. The town has come a long way from the garbage can with pinecones glued on it that was used during the drop's inaugural year in 1999 - see for yourself:

15. An apple in Manhattan, Kansas. Paying homage to their “Little Apple” nickname, Manhattan drops a brightly-lit Red Delicious.

16. A big chunk of cheese in Plymouth, Wisconsin. Sadly, it’s not real dairy, but merely an 80-pound brick of styrofoam sprayed yellow.

17. A drag queen in a large red high heel in Key West, Florida. Her name is Sushi (the drag queen, not the stiletto). If that’s not your cup of tea, you have other options in Key West: they also drop a six-foot conch shell and a pirate wench.

18. Two hundred pounds of bologna in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the home of Lebanon bologna.

19. Coal in Shamokin, Pennsylvania. As you might suspect, Shamokin is a coal mining town proud of its heritage.

What Goes Up...

What goes up, stays up... at least when it comes to these objects that are raised instead of dropped.

20. The elevator at the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington.

21. An orange wearing sunglasses in Miami, Florida.

22. A watermelon ball in Vincennes, Indiana. When it gets to the top, the ball opens to release 12 real watermelons, making a mess in the splash zone below that would make Gallagher proud.

23. A giant Hershey’s Kiss in Hershey, Pennsylvania (of course).

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]