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Flickr user mattsabo17

9 Fun Festivals Still to Come in January

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Flickr user mattsabo17

Communities are more likely to stage festivals during summer school breaks and in autumn to celebrate the harvest, but that only makes winter festivals stand out from the crowd. If you have some free time, you might want to go where the action is this winter.

1. Up Helly Aa

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Up Helly Aa happens in Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland, on the last Tuesday in January, which is the 29th this year. The festival is led by the elected Guizer Jarl, or head Viking, and his Jarl Squad, clad in different historic uniforms each year. The squad performs various ceremonial duties during the day, and at night the town's lights are turned off while they lead a procession of up to a thousand men carrying torches while thousands more watch. The public is not allowed to watch the end of the procession, in which the torches are used to ceremoniously burn a Viking galley. After the boat is burned, the guizers return to the village for parties and merrymaking. The festival began in the 1800s as rowdy street parties around Christmas evolved into more civilized rituals. A group of young men introduced the Viking theme into the celebrations around 1870. The oldest and biggest Up Helly Aa is at Lerwick, but other towns in Shetland carry on the rituals as well.

2. Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Photo Credit: LiYan via Wikipedia

The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival lasts for a month, this year until February 5th, although some events may occur later. Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang Province, near Siberia. The entire city is turned into a wonderland of ice and snow, with some sculptures as big as buildings—and some are actually buildings that can be toured. An area called Ice and Snow World is filled with sculptures that are illuminated at night. Winter sporting events are also a part of the festival, which draws visitors from all over the world.

3. The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Show

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The American Fancy Rat and Mouse Show will be held Saturday, January 26th in Riverside, California. It's an opportunity for breeders and enthusiasts to exhibit and sell rats and mice as pets, but there will also be classes, competitions, and seminars. Admission is free and open to the public, but you must be an AFRMA member to exhibit or sell animals.

4. Frogleg Festival

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The Frogleg Festival in Fellsmere, Florida, started out as a simple dinner to raise money for children's recreational activities. When 400 people showed up, the townspeople decided to make it an annual event, which grew into a three-day festival (January 17 to 20 this year). The main draw are the frog legs and gator tail dinners, but you'll also find carnival rides, contests, and concerts.

5. Camel-wrestling Championship 2013

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Camel wrestling is a popular spectator event in Turkey, in which two bull camels are tempted by a female, and then challenge each other for dominance. In reality…

camel wrestling is more akin to comedy than to blood-sport. Bull camels normally wrestle and butt one another in a knock-out contest for precedence in a herd, and more importantly, precedence in mating. In the arena two bulls are led out and then a young cow is paraded around to get them excited. It's very easy to know when a bull is excited as streams of viscous milky saliva issue from his mouth and nostrils. Mostly the two bulls will half-heartedly butt each other and lean on the other until one of them gives in and runs away. This is the really exciting bit as the bull will often charge off towards the crowd, with the conquering bull in pursuit, and the spectators must scramble hurriedly out of the way. The antics of spectators trying to avoid a thousand kilograms (nearly a ton) of camel running towards them can lead to pure comedy and is the best part of camel wrestling.

Although the camel-wrestling season runs through March, Selçuk, Turkey, will stage a championship event on January 20.

6. Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival

The Great Alaska Beer & Barley Wine Festival is a trade show held in Anchorage January 18-19. Admission is $40, but that includes beer! Dozens of regional brewers participate and show off their specialty brews. The festival benefits small breweries in exposure, and proceeds benefit the American Diabetes Association.

7. Australia Day Cockroach Races

Photo Credit: Australia Day Cockroach Races

January 26th is Australia Day, and many festivals across the continent will coincide with the midsummer holiday. One of the more unusual events is the Cockroach Races in Brisbane on January 26th. Although the event organizers bring in cockroaches from Melbourne, entrants are encouraged to bring their own roaches as there aren't usually enough. Cockroaches have numbers painted on them to determine who wins each race. The festival also has live entertainment and a Miss Cocky Competition beauty pageant, which accepts entries up to the last minute.

8. Tunarama Festival

Photo Credit: Perrin Ivon

Also coinciding with Australia Day festivities, the Tunarama Festival in Port Lincoln, South Australia, happens in summertime down under, on January 25 to 28 this year. In addition to the usual festival events, this one includes the World Championship Tuna Toss. How far can you throw a big tuna fish? The winner gets $3000! Other competitions are the prawn peeling contest, the slippery pole competition, the tattoo competition, and the plywood boat building contest.

9. Gasparilla Pirate Fest

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The Gasparilla Pirate Fest will be held January 26 when the Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla sails into Hillsborough Bay to invade Tampa, Florida. Which they've done annually since 1904, so it won't be a surprise. The pre-Lenten festival is named in honor of Jose Gaspar, the pirate called Gasparilla, who terrorized the Florida coast 200 years ago. Events include a pirate parade, brunch, and entertainment at the street festival at MacDill Park.

Yes, you still have time to make it to each of these events, but as far as hotel accommodations go, you're on your own!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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.