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20 Offbeat Holidays to Celebrate in February

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Valentine’s Day and President’s Day might grant you overpriced flowers and a random Monday off, but February has a bounty of other festivals, holidays, and anniversaries that can offer an offbeat added value to your month.

1. February 5: National Weatherman’s Day


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There’s a 60 percent chance of your local weatherman being at least 20 percent right about his job today, but there’s a 100 percent chance this holiday takes place on February 5. Whatever percent chance you’re convinced this should be a holiday, give a little thanks for the men and women who help you get dressed appropriately in the morning.

2. February 5th: National Pancake Day (as brought to you by IHOP)


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Forget December: This is the most wonderful time of the year. We’re talking about none other than IHOP’s annual National Pancake Day. This year, like the years before it, you can enjoy a free short stack of buttermilks and donate to charity. It’s a win-win. (Except not for your waistline.)

3. February 6: Lame Duck Day


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Though the holiday was created to celebrate the introduction of the 20th Amendment on February 6 of 1933, the amendment was actually ratified in January of that year. Lame Duck Day is a way to honor those who just left office after being rendered totally ineffective for a few months. In other words, it is appropriately lame.

4. February 7: 49th Anniversary of the Beatles' First Visit to the United States


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Beatlemania invaded our shores on this day in 1964, and has arguably never left.

5. February 8: Laugh and Get Rich Day


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If only it were that easy! Maybe it can be, why not? Given the healing properties of laughter, all you have to lose is your good health if you don't try.

6. February 9: National Read in the Bathtub Day


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Today is the day to treat yourself to a long, warm bath and a good book. But unless you're a fan of severe pruning, this might not be the day to finally finish Infinite Jest.

7. February 10: The First Day of Chinese New Year


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It’s the Year of the Snake, but fear not! Arguably the most important traditional Chinese holiday, the Chinese, or Lunar, New Year entails parades, fireworks, dumplings and familial togetherness. The serpentine year is supposed to bring steady progress, so make your first step towards positive returns by heading to your nearest Chinatown and joining in the festivities.

8. February 12: Darwin Day


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Charles Darwin was born 204 years ago today (side note: Abe Lincoln was born on exactly the same day). The International Darwin Day Foundation elects February 12 as a day to commemorate the man, science in general, and humanity.

9. February 14: Library Lovers Day


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Because sometimes a good book is more emotionally satisfying than a person.

10. February 15: Nirvana Day (also called Paranirvana Day)


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Buddhists believe that on this day the Buddha physically died, but also achieved complete Nirvana. Few can claim similar accomplishments in the field of Enlightenment, but most of us can appreciate the pursuit. Buddhist or not, give yourself a few deep breaths. Heck, you made it through Valentine’s Day alive. You’ve earned a little Nirvana.

11. February 17: National PTA Founders Day


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The specific day seems to vary from state to state, and even school district to school district—but February 17 is designated as a nationwide day to honor the founding of the National Parent Teacher Association, and the resulting legions of embarrassed kids countrywide.

12. February 17: Random Acts of Kindness Day


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In some parts of the world, Random Acts of Kindness Day is actually observed on September 1. But what’s the harm in two days of niceness? So as our magnanimous act for the day, we’re happy to grant February 17 equal footing in the kindness department.

13. February 17: 80th Anniversary of Newsweek Magazine

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When the presses were stopped last year, Newsweek moved exclusively into the digital world—all the more reason to honor its first issue, which dropped this day in 1933, and the many issues that followed.

14. February 21: 41st Anniversary of Nixon’s Historic Beijing Visit


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In 1972, a pre-disgrace President Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing to make a huge step in normalizing diplomatic relations with China. From the visit, the United States got the beginnings of a beautiful, though sometimes tempestuous, friendship with the Eastern power, and two pandas for the National Zoo.

15. February 22: National Margarita Day

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It should come as a surprise to no one that Jimmy Buffett is behind this one. If you have already given up on your Lenten promises, celebrate February 22 by appreciating as many Margaritas as you deem fit. If you happen to live near a Margaritaville drinking establishment, they will be providing specials all day.

16. February 22: Single Tasking Day


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The modern day rat race places a heavy emphasis on the ability to juggle multiple tasks at once. Our greatest weakness as a workforce is caring too much, right? Well, for just a day, drop all your multi-tasking impulses and devote your full attention to each bullet on your to-do list. Successful celebration may require you to turn off your smartphone.

17. February 23: World Sword Swallower’s Day

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President of Sword Swallowers International Dan Meyer proclaimed February 23, 2013, World Sword Swallower’s Day as a way to raise awareness about the art. On this day at 2:25 p.m., swallowers will “drop sword” at Ripley’s Believe It or Not! odditoriums around the world.

18. February 25: National Pistol Patent Day

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It was on this day in 1836 Samuel Colt patented his famous revolver in the United States. Europe got his patent first in 1835 on a different date, which is why this specific holi-date is relegated to a mere “national” status.

19. February 27: Congress Makes an Honest District out of DC

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On this day in 1801, Congress declared the District of Columbia officially under its jurisdiction with the Organic Act of 1801. However, it was not until the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961 that the capital district received electoral votes.

20. February 28: National Public Sleeping Day

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In most parts of the United States, the weather might be less than optimal for observing this offbeat holiday, but to the brave and/or foolish among us: wear layers.

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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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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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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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