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Contrary, Lazy, or Subversive (but Funny) Christmas Decorations

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Three years ago, I posted a list of Bizarre But Clever Christmas Decorations. Since then, the internet has disseminated many ways that people have broken away from the normal methods of decorating their homes and yards, which may be simple but stand out because of their differences. You have to particularly admire those who make it easy on themselves with shortcuts!

Don't Get Too Excited

Christmas is a time to show your true feelings. Spell it out in lights if you have to.

Claim Your Neighbor's Work

Redditor minbambi caught this sign in her neighborhood. Are you having trouble reading the sign? Here's a closer look:

The same home had used the sign before. Much cheaper than buying decorations yourself!

Bah, Humbug

Christmas lights? Bah Humbug!

Ebenezer Scrooge said it best, and people have been saying it ever since. Photograph by Flickr user NiferCritter.

Just Humbug

You don't even have to spell it all out. People will know what you mean.

Day and Night

This house looks like a normal, everyday American home -by day. At night, the Christmas lights overshadow anything else.

Professional Humbug

This display is from the Holiday Dynamics website. Not really sure if these are for sale; they may be a custom order. Isn't it nice to see "Bah! Humbug!" written in such a cheery holiday font?

Ditto

"Ditto" means "the same." When I was young, we used ditto marks like this: " " when we didn't want to write the same thing over and over in a chart. Now it's an easy way to say "I love you," to reply to someone who loves you when you don't want to say the words. It's also a way to express that you have the same Christmas cheer as the guy who put up all those lights, without having to put up all those lights. Dave Nosek of Chicago used the word in his Christmas lights in 2009, because he felt he couldn't complete with his neighbor, Chet Cybulski, and his ever-growing light display. It was Cybulski's idea, taken from a picture he saw on the internet. Here's a video of another such display from 2009, no location given.

In 2010, an unnamed homeowner in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma built a ditto sign that can be pointed at the most brightly-decorated house on the block, whichever direction that may be. Photograph by Nance Henderson.

In 2011, Courtney Clarke of Beaverton, Oregon, used the idea to avoid the work her neighbor put into a grand lighting display.

This year, the ditto lights in the news can be found at Kristina Green's house in Maricopa, Arizona. This display has its own Facebook page! The sign is homemade, with nearly 400 lights. Get a closer look.

Okay now, which ones of you are going to use these ideas next year?

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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
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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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