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Where Did Groundhog Day Come From?

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ARCHIE CARPENTER/UPI /Landov

Just who decided we should trust a Pennsylvania rodent with weather prognostication?

You gotta love a holiday centered around weather. You might think it’s about the animal, but no, any hibernating animal will do just as well. The real reason Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd is that it is close to the midpoint of winter, halfway between the solstice and the equinox. Whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not, we still officially have six (and a half) more weeks of winter. This is the turning point of the season, and for pre-industrial societies (particularly farmers), the midwinter date was a day to take stock and determine whether you have enough food and firewood to last the rest of the winter. If you miscalculated the previous fall, or you found that the grain is full of weevils and your cow started looking skinny, you had good reason to look for omens of an early spring.

Imbolc

Ancient pagans marked the solstices and the equinoxes as a way of measuring the cycle of the year. There are also important dates that fall in the midpoint between the solstices and equinoxes, which were considered the real beginnings of the seasons. These "cross quarters" are called Beltaine, Lughnasad, Samhain, and Imbolc. The old pagan holiday of Imbolc falls on February first or second, and is referred to as the beginning of spring. The word itself is an Old Irish term for a ewe's pregnancy. The date has a tradition of being a good one for weather forecasting. Old verses tell of the date's importance in the cycle of the year.

The serpent will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bride,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.

And from a different song:

The Day of Bride, the birthday of Spring,
The serpent emerges from the knoll,
'Three-years-olds' is applied to heifers,
Garrons are taken to the fields.

Imbolc 2007 : Mr Fox Dance group escort the Green Man (spring)

Photograph by Flickr user :mrMark.

Imbolc is also sometimes celebrated as the festival of the ancient pagan goddess Brig or Brigid, who is sometimes confused with the Catholic saint Brigit. Saint Brigit of Kildare's feast day is February 1. The information on Brigit's life is scarce, as the first recorded reference to her was written well after her death. In fact, some sources say that there never was a nun named Brigit, but the priests allowed pagan converts to continue their traditional celebration of Brigid by bending history to concoct the story of a nun who became a saint. Imbolc is a "fire festival," which may explain why the Christian holiday that supplanted it is named for candles.

Candlemas

Christians celebrate February 2nd because it is 40 days after Christmas, a feast day known as Candlemas. This would be the end of the 40-day purification period after childbirth for Mary under Jewish law. It is also considered to be the day the infant Jesus was first presented in the Temple. In Orthodox communities that still use the Julian calendar, Candlemas is celebrated on the Gregorian calendar's February 14th. Soon after it was established, Candlemas also became associated with weather forecasting, as is recorded in the lyrics of songs dating back hundreds of years.

If Candlemas day be dry and fair,
The half o' winter to come and mair,
If Candlemas day be wet and foul,
The half of winter's gone at Yule.

But there is nothing in the religious observation of Candlemas that leads directly to weather prognostication. The date selected to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ replaced old pagan celebrations, and Candlemas does, too. Because of where the date falls, however, the feast of Candlemas became a handy name for midwinter weather forecasting, no matter what country or in what language the tradition was known as before.

The Day of the Bear

Original photograph by Flickr user Beverly & Pack.

The obsession with weather forecasting at this time of year is completely understandable -after all, winter weather is tiresome, and for many, downright dangerous. Will the supplies you stocked in the autumn last until spring? Finding out didn't make the supplies last any longer, but signs of spring could soothe a worried mind. One omen Europeans looked for was the emergence of hibernating animals. The snake mentioned in the old Imbolc verses was rarely ever seen, but hibernating mammals were. In some parts of Eastern Europe, Candlemas is also known as the Day of the Bear, and the weather forecasting tradition varies. In some communities, good weather on the day of the bear will cause the animal to stay outside, meaning spring will come soon. In other places that observe the Day of the Bear, the "contrary" rule applies- if the weather is nice, the bear will see his shadow and be frightened back into his den for more winter weather. So one should hope for a cloudy or stormy day at Candlemas.

Badger Day

Original photograph by Flickr user Tim Brookes.

In France, the marmot became the traditional animal to look for. In England, folks waited for the arrival of the hedgehog. And in Germany, Candlemas was associated with the weather forecasting omen of the emerging badger. In fact, Candlemas was also known as Badger Day in Germany. These traditions went for the "contrary" weather theory.

The Badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and when he finds snow walks aboard; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.

The Germans noted another significance of the February 2nd date: by then, the sun had made enough progress that one could eat supper before dark. That's worth a celebration!

Groundhogs

Original photograph by Flickr user StephenZacharias.

The Pennsylvania Dutch brought their customs from Germany to America. But there were no badgers in the eastern U.S. However, the large ground squirrel (in this case, underground squirrel) known as the whistle pig, woodchuck, or groundhog, hibernated in the winter and filled the requirements of the old tradition. The first recorded reference to Groundhog Day in the United States was in 1841, when James Morris of Morgantown, Pennsylvania recorded in his diary:

Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.

Punxsutawney Phil

Original photograph by Flickr user SchultzLabs.

The tradition spread through the U.S. but the most famous groundhog is still found in Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous citizen of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and is trotted out every February 2nd for the national media -oh yes, and to check for his shadow. Other cities have their own groundhogs, and people in rural areas look for evidence of anonymous groundhog emergence. The groundhog, however, has never been a particularly accurate predictor of the weather. Punxsutawney Phil has a 39% accuracy rate since 1887. After all, how smart can an animal be if he is afraid of his own shadow?

C. G. P. Grey explains how we celebrate Groundhog Day.

See also: The mental_floss Groundhog Round Up

Image manipulation via Speechable.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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