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17 Offbeat Holidays and Anniversaries to Celebrate in December

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Halfway through last December, we gave you 11 unusual holidays to make the month even more festive. While we still highly endorse observing National Wear a Plunger on Your Head Day (December 18th) and National Cover Anything With Chocolate Day (December 16th), we found plenty of other reasons to keep your spirits bright all month.

1. December 1st: (A Proposed) Scrabble Day

Much to the chagrin of the Scrabulous inventors and the annoyance of Words with Friends, this granddaddy of word games is copyrighted. On this day in 1948, the U.S. Copyright Office made an honest board game out of Scrabble. In honor of this event, we propose all December 1sts be recognized as National Scrabble Day. (The holiday is currently held on April 13, the birthday of inventor Alfred Mosher Butts.)

2. December 3rd: 20th Anniversary of the First Text Message

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SMS was born on this date in 1992. The first message, sent to a Vodafone engineer, was "Merry Christmas." Celebrate every time you don't have to actually pick up the phone and call someone.

3. December 4th: National Cookie Day

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December isn’t exactly lacking in opportunities to indulge in sweet treats, but today it’s your offbeat-holiday-given right to mix, bake, and/or eat as many cookies as your glycemic index can handle.

4. December 5th: International Ninja Day

The official website of Ninja Day alleges this holiday not only honors all things stealth and nunchucks, but also combats the more nautical offbeat holiday, “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” which takes place in September. Creep, sneak, or redirect all of your Urls to Ninja activity—as long as you forgo the “arrrr matey’s” and eye patches for ominous silence and masks, you’re correctly celebrating this international holiday.

5. December 8th: Blessing of the Water Day, Uruguay

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Sometimes called “Beach Day,” this Uruguayan holiday involves a contest: Religious leaders send a cross into the ocean, and whoever gets to it first is guaranteed a year’s worth of good fortune.

6. December 9th: Weary Willie Day

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Professional clown Emmett Kelly created one of the more memorable clown characters of the 20th century: “Weary Willie.” Unlike many of his clown predecessors, Weary Willie opted out of white face paint and broad slapstick for the “tramp” look popular among Depression-era derelicts. One of his signature routines involved attempting to sweep up after circus acts, and failing in spite of himself—to the delight and empathy of the audience.

7. December 10th: Nobel Prize Day

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Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel may have died on this day in 1896, but his namesake continues to be honored through the world’s most prestigious award. In honor of his life, the Nobel Prize Ceremony is held every year on the day of his death.

8. December 12th: Festival of Unmentionable Thoughts

We would love to tell you about the origin of this fest or how one goes about celebrating it, but, well, common decency prevents us.

9. December 13th: National Cocoa Day

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The weather outside is starting to get frightful, but what better cure for the temperature blues than a nice cup of hot cocoa? A down coat or a wool hat simply can’t compete in the taste department.

10. December 14th: Monkey Day

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According to the official Monkey Day website, Monkey Day is an “annual celebration of all things simian, a festival of primates, a chance to scream like a monkey and throw feces at whomever you choose.” The origins of the holiday are unknown, though it has been observed since at least 2003. We mentioned it last year, but just really wanted to use that picture again.

11. December 15th: National Cat Herder’s Day

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Another gem from last year's list. Cat herding is as difficult as it sounds. Founded by a California couple, National Cat Herder’s Day isn’t just for people who actually wrangle felines, but also those whose lives or jobs feel as if they are constantly herding around cats. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, perhaps it will help to add the celebration of this obscure holiday to your Saturday schedule.

12. December 16th: The 15th Anniversary of That Bizarre Pokemon Incident

On this date in 1997, over 600 kids in Japan were rushed to hospitals after an especially intense Pokemon episode led to dizziness and vomiting. Maybe just turn the TV off today and celebrate outside.

13. December 16th: Beethoven’s Birthday

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We wish he could have been born on the 5th, too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still listen to his famed 5th Symphony to celebrate his birthday. But if we’re playing the numbers game, he did happen to compose exactly 16 string quartets. Coincidence? (Yes.)

14. December 22nd: 100th Birthday of the Late Lady Bird Johnson

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We challenge you to find an American first lady with a more memorable nickname. While the legacy of her eponym is certainly enough, she proved herself to be a savvy political voice in Washington. After bankrolling the other LBJ’s first Congressional campaign, this LBJ became a high-powered businesswoman (she made their first million) and champion of the aesthetic health of our nation’s highways. Lady Bird also became the first First Lady to have her very own press secretary.

15. December 23rd: Festivus!

Then of course, there’s always Festivus for the rest of us. Created by a Seinfeld writer's father and popularized by Frank Costanza, this secular holiday that involves gathering around an aluminum pole and airing your grievances has continued to gain a following since its introduction in 1997. If you haven’t seen the episode, there’s an entire website that spells out how to celebrate Festivus from start to finish. (Test your Festivus knowledge with this quiz.)

16. December 24th: The End of the War of 1812 (in 1814)

Just in time for Christmas, the Americans and the British got their stuff together to sign the Treaty of Ghent, thus ending the War of 1812. Contrary to what this conflict might lead you to believe, the war lasted far past its inaugural year, and despite the peace treaty signature in 1814, the war didn't even officially end until 1815. On this day, we could always celebrate freedom and democracy—but why not honor inaccurately named conflicts too?

17. December 28th: 280th Anniversary of Poor Richard’s Almanac

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Imagine a periodical where you could access your calendar, the weather forecasts, poetry, stories, astrological facts, and much more all in one place? Poor Richard’s Almanac was kind of like the 18th-century iPhone. On this day in 1732, Benjamin Franklin released his famous pseudonym and annual publication to the American colonies. Fame, fortune, and a revolution would follow for Ben. Thanks to the legacy of this publication, we all know what an early bedtime and early rise can yield a man.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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