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Why Do We Go Trick-or-Treating on Halloween?

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Historians link trick-or-treating to a few different ancestors, some old and some new. One is the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the transition to the new year, and the end of the harvest and beginning of the winter. The ancient Celts believed that during this short window (October 31 to November 2 in our modern calendar), the realms of the living and the dead overlapped and that spirits both good and bad could walk among the living. To confuse and ward off the evil spirits, the Celts would sometimes impersonate them with costumes of white clothing and masks or blackface. If they encountered a spirit during the feast, the costumed Celts would be mistaken for spirits and left alone.

As Christianity gained influence in the British Isles, the old Pagan customs were Christianized and adapted to help ease the Celts’ conversion. Three Christian holidays—All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, together known as Hallowmas—were placed on the same days as Samhain. All Hallow’s Eve eventually got shortened to Hallowe'en, and then Halloween, in conversation and casual usage.

Going around the neighborhood for goodies may be an offshoot of souling, which started in the Middle Ages, also in the British Isles. Soulers, mostly children and some poor adults, would go to local homes during Hallowmas and collect food or money in return for prayers said for the dead on All Souls’ Day. A secular version of souling, called guising, eventually sprang up and is first recorded in Scotland in the 19th century. Guisers went door to door and earned food treats or money by offering a small performance, like telling a joke or singing a song. Some accounts of both these traditions make note of “fantastic costumes” that borrowed both from Samhain and British mummery. (They also mention soulers and guisers carrying vegetable lanterns, precursors to the jack-o’-lantern.)

In Trick of Treat: A History of Halloweenhorror author and Halloween historian Lisa Norton argues that, rather than old British customs, trick-or-treating is rooted in a more modern, more American practice with no ties to the usual ghouls and ghosts. Belsnickling, derived from the German mumming tradition of Peltznickel, was a Christmastime tradition in German-American communities where children would dress in costume and then call on their neighbors to see if the adults could guess the identities of the disguised guests. In one version of the practice, the children were rewarded with food or other treats if no one could identify them. “This same custom appears in some early descriptions of trick or treat,” Norton writes, “lending credence to the possibility that it derived from its Christmas cousin.”

Whether it was born of guising or belsnickling, trick-or-treating emerged from the ethnic enclaves as its own, wholly North American custom in the early 20th century. In 1927, a newspaper in Alberta makes the first recorded use of “trick or treat” (“The youthful tormentors were at back door and front demanding edible plunder by the word 'trick or treat' to which the inmates gladly responded and sent the robbers away rejoicing”), and the term and the practice spread throughout the 1930s. After a lull caused by WWII sugar rationing, trick-or-treating surged in popularity in the 1950s, and became enshrined in pop culture with appearances in national media like The Jack Benny Show and Peanuts comic strips.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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