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6 Easter Traditions You Might Not Know

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The sacred Christian holiday of Easter is celebrated in somewhat similar ways around the world, but there are some traditions from various regions that may be new to you.

1. Baranek Wielkanocny

The Baranek Wielkanocny, or Easter Butter Lamb is a hunk of butter shaped into a woolly lamb to celebrate Easter in Poland. You might find one in your Easter basket or use it as a centerpiece for the holiday feast. If the local priest is blessing baskets of Easter foods before they are laid out for the meal, the Butter Lamb is always included. They are sold in delis around the holiday or you can make your own at home.

2. The Burning of Judas

In several countries, it is customary to burn an effigy of Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus, sometimes as part of a Passion play. See burnings in Mexico, Greece, Venezuela, Crete, Portugal, and Spain. The effigy is often hanged by the neck before the burning on the Friday or Saturday before Easter. For an added touch, some celebrants stuff the effigy with fireworks or give it the face of an unpopular politician.

3. Pysanky Eggs

Eggs, symbols of new life, are used in several ways to mark the Easter holiday. People in many countries decorate eggs in beautiful colors. Pysanky eggs are an example of Ukrainian folk art. They are decorated in nature motifs using a batik method. The designs are drawn in negative with wax, and colors are built up using successive dye immersions. The wax design is changed as different colors of dye are used. The results can be quite elaborate. Here's a tutorial on making Pysanky eggs. Photograph by Luba Petrusha.

4. Crucifixion

In the Philippines, some Christians put themselves through the same punishments that Jesus endured, from self-flagellation to allowing themselves to be nailed to a cross. This "mortification of the flesh" is extremely painful, but volunteers are not left on crosses long enough to endanger their lives. Representatives of the Catholic church try to discourage these extreme re-enactments. Image by Flickr user nigel@hornchurch.

5. Maundy Money

Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter, traditionally the day Jesus celebrated the Passover meal known as the last supper and was later arrested. In the United Kingdom, the day is commemorated when the reigning monarch gives away Maundy Money. In times past, the king or queen washed the feet of the poor as well to show humility. In the modern era, the giving of alms is ceremonial, with Queen Elizabeth passing out coins in an amount equal to her age. Special coins are minted for this purpose, which become collector's items. This Thursday, she will distribute 84 pence to each recipient.

6. The Rocket War of Vrondados

In the village of Vrondados, on the Greek island of Chios, the annual war of the rockets is staged between two churches, Agios Marcos and Erithiani. Residents spend all year preparing thousands of rockets containing fireworks. On Saturday night before Orthodox Easter, the rockets are fired between the churches for hours. The custom goes back many years, and although there are plenty of stories, no one is quite sure how the tradition began.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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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
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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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