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Cinco por Cinco: 5 Fun Facts About Cinco de Mayo

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Cinco de Mayo may literally translate to “Fifth of May,” but there is a lot more to the annual springtime celebration of Hispanic heritage and culture in the United States than the many margarita-soaked festivities that ensue all over the nation. So before you throw on your sombrero and head to tequila town this Cinco de Mayo, take a shotful of these five hechos you may not have known about the holiday.

1. Victory!

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We drink margaritas on this day because a small, rag-tag group of Mexicans beat the odds and defeated a much larger, well-equipped French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. The battle was part of the larger Franco-Mexican War that lasted another five years—France wanted to take over the North American country after a cash-strapped Mexico defaulted on some European loans—and resulted in Mexican victory. The first Cinco de Mayo celebrations are said to have occurred in California not long after the conclusion of the Battle of Puebla, where overjoyed Mexican gold miners whooped and hollered and shot off guns and fireworks.

Since then, Cinco de Mayo has become more of an American celebration of Hispanic heritage and culture than a Mexican holiday. Cinco de Mayo earned widespread adoption in the United States during the 1960s and El Movimento (the Chicano Civil Rights Movement), and Congress passed a resolution in 2005 to recognize the “historical significance” of the holiday. 

2. Fiesta

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Los Angeles currently plays host to the world's largest Cinco de Mayo celebration, Fiesta Broadway. Each year, downtown LA blocks off major streets and welcomes hundreds of thousands of people for an afternoon of music, food and crafts in honor of Hispanic heritage. Fiesta Broadway dates back to 1990, and was modeled after Miami's famous Calle Ocho street party.

3. Aye Chihuahua!

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Chandler, Arizona may just take the tequila-soaked cake as far as Cinco de Mayo festivities go for its famous Cinco de Mayo chihuahua races. The town's celebration, recognizing the contribution its Hispanic residents have made to the community, features a fun-filled competition that results in cash prizes for the speediest member of the popular Mexican dog breed and the crowning of a King and Queen Chihuahua.

4. One Tequila, Two Tequila...

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This famous liquor (and the staple of many a modern Cinco de Mayo celebration) is derived from the agave plant. Its modern incarnation is brewed from the blue agave native to the Jalisco region of Mexico, and dates back to the 1500s when the Spanish occupation introduced the European art of distilling. But before that, Aztec civilization had been brewing a beer-like beverage called pulque from a related agave plant (the maguey) for centuries. Only priests could drink it, and how exactly it was invented is the stuff of myth. Several popular legends include one involving a drunken opossum pulling nectar from the plant, and another asserting that ancient gods sent lightning to split the plant and reveal the nectar to humans.

5. Tambien on this Day in History

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Cinco de Mayo shares a date on the calendar with other notable historical events. Carnegie Hall opened on May 5th, 1891. In 1925, John Thomas Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school, setting the stage for the Scopes Monkey Trials. On May 5th, 1961, NASA launched the first American-manned space flight piloted by Alan Shepard Jr. (Oh, and Paris Hilton was sentenced to serve jail time on May 5th, 2007.)

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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