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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

5 Dates You Won't Find on Your Calendar

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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

While you may be a bit fuzzy on which months have 30 days and which have 31, it’s safe to say you’re pretty familiar with the months and days of the year. But due to unusual record-keeping practices or because of months that were eliminated over the centuries, there are a few days you’ll never see on your joke-a-day calendar.

1. January 0

At midnight every New Year’s Eve, we go from December 31 to January 1. Simple, right? That’s how it works for everyone ... except astronomers. Each year, astronomers keep track of the movements of various planets and stars, which are compiled into what’s called an ephemeris. While it’s useful for things like space travel and positioning telescopes, GPS systems also use the data to properly function.

The thing about ephemerides (the plural of ephemeris) is that they don’t reference any year other than the one for which they were written. So if you had an ephemeris for the year 2000, you wouldn’t find any mention of 1999 or 2001. Generally speaking, it shouldn’t be necessary, though, since it’s only for that particular year anyway.

Except when you referenced January 1, that is. Because some more detailed ephemerides will list the previous day’s celestial positions for reference purposes, the ephemeris would have to have information for December 31. But, since the ephemeris doesn’t refer to any other year, this date will instead often be called January 0. Going back to our year 2000 example, an ephemeris for that year might list Prince’s favorite day, December 31, 1999, as January 0, 2000 instead. 

It’s worth noting that many modern day ephemerides have dropped the use of January 0 entirely, but there are others that still use it

And back in the 1920s, several groups lobbied for a calendar with 13 months, each with four weeks. To reach 365 days, their plan was to add "January 0."

2. February 30

You may have a friend or relative in your life whose birthday is February 29. Maybe they fudge it and celebrate on February 28 or March 1 every year, or possibly they just have a mega-party every four years. (Or they have a mega-party every year, because why not.) So imagine how frustrating it’d be to have been born in the Swedish Empire on February 30, 1712, the only day of its kind in history. 

Naturally, it was a pretty complex set of events that led to February 1712 getting two leap days. Our modern, Western calendar is called the Gregorian calendar, which was developed under Pope Gregory XIII. It’s basically just a series of improvements to the Julian calendar, created by Julius Caesar.

While the Gregorian calendar was completed in 1582, adoption by many countries was slow, so it took over 100 years for the Swedish Empire (which was primarily Protestant and not Catholic) to adopt it. Because the Julian to Gregorian swap included a difference of ten days, many regions simply skipped their calendar ahead a week and a half. The Swedish Empire decided to roll out the difference more gradually, and intended to skip leap days for forty years, starting in 1700, until the calendar was finally correct.

Except that didn’t happen because, shortly afterward, war broke out and everyone forgot about the leap days until 1712, when Sweden’s King, Charles (or Karl) XII, declared that they would forget about the Gregorian calendar and just switch back to the Julian instead. Since they did manage to skip one leap day, in 1700 (which was a leap year under the Julian calendar, but not the Gregorian), they simply decided to add it back onto the calendar that February—meaning that February 1712 had two leap days according to Sweden’s calendar, which gave them the only February 30 in history. (Sweden finally went through with the Gregorian switch in 1753 and just skipped ahead a few days, like everyone else.) 

3. March 0

While you could think of February 30 as some weird kind of March 0, they’re not the same thing (though they do both involve leap years). If someone asked you what the day before March 1 is, you’d probably ask them, “What year?” March 0 is, like January 0, simply a reference to the day before it, but it’s useful since March 0 can be either February 28 or 29, depending on the year.

While this is occasionally used in software (some old versions of Microsoft Excel will accept 3/0 as a date and simply plug in the correct day for the particular year, for example), it’s more commonly found in something known as the Doomsday rule.

It sounds fairly ominous, but the Doomsday rule is just a method for calculating what day of the year falls on for any given date. For example, by following the Doomsday rule, you could quickly tell that January 19, 1481 was a Wednesday. How? By figuring out what creator John Conway calls “the Doomsday.” This is the day of the week that certain calendar days will always fall on in a given year. April 4, June 6, and August 8 are just a few days of the year that will always fall on that year’s Doomsday. Another big one? March 0, i.e., the final day of February.

So, using 1481 as our example again, you can use a formula to determine that its Doomsday was Monday. (For the record, 2013’s Doomsday is Thursday.) From there, we could quickly ascertain that March 0 was a Monday, and for that particular year, February only had 28 days (since it was not a leap year), making “March 0” Monday, February 28, 1481. If you’re mathematically-minded, it’s a fun challenge. If you’re not, well, you can always look the day up on the internet or use a Doomsday calculator.

4. Undecimber and Duodecimber

There aren’t just odd and unusual days of the year. There are entire months as well. Remember the episode of The Simpsons where the school ordered faulty calendars with a 13th month (called Smarch)? Well, as it happens, we kind of had that once upon a time—namely, those left over from the days of the Roman calendar, which preceded the aforementioned Julian calendar. Much like how the process of moving from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar left a few odd days out, the move from the Roman calendar to the Julian one actually added some.

These days, 67 in all, were then added into a pair of months between the November and December of 45 BC, and were referred to as intercalaris prior and intercalaris posterior, which are often called Undecimber (pronounced like “oon,” not “uhn”) and Duodecimber in modern days.

These names refer to the fact that December is named after the Latin word for ten (which itself came from the fact that the Roman calendar originally only had ten months and not twelve), while the Latin words for eleven and twelve (or in this case, thirteen and fourteen) are undecim and duodecim.

What’s more, the terms have even come to be used in modern computing. The Java programming language includes support for a 13-month calendar, and it refers to the 13th month as Undecimber

5. Mercedonius

Speaking of the Roman calendar, by the time Julius Caesar came along, it hadn’t had ten months for quite a while. Nearly 600 years, in fact. The Roman calendar that Caesar reformed was itself a reformed calendar constructed by King (not Emperor) Numa Pompilius sometime in the 7th century BC.

Prior to Pompilius’ changes, the Roman calendar, as we mentioned, had ten months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. (Quintilis was later renamed Julius after Julius Caesar himself, while Sextilis was changed to Augustus in honor of his son/grand-nephew, Caesar Augustus.) King Numa Pompilius added Januarius and Februarius, giving us the twelve months we have today … except he also added another, forgotten month that hasn’t been in use for millennia: Mercedonius

Mercedonius was a kind of a leap month, situated between Februarius and Martius, and was approximately 27 days. Although there was apparently some kind of formula to determine in which years Mercedonius was used and in which years it wasn’t, the implementation was spotty, since it was up to whoever the current Pontifex Maximus was at the time to decide if the month was used or not.

Since the month was used so sloppily, Julius Caesar simply eliminated it entirely when constructing the Julian calendar, rearranged the days throughout the year, and made a simple, easy-to-follow leap day system. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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]