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Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

25 Stunning Photos of China's Ice and Snow Festival

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Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

This time of year, the temperature in Harbin can drop below zero—tomorrow's low is -17° F. So if you're going to be freezing, you might as well invite people to create some of the world's coolest ice sculptures to distract you from all the shivering.

The 30th Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival opened yesterday. It's one of the world's largest ice-carving festivals.

If you live where it snows, use the gallery as creative inspiration for your next snowman-building project.

Standing at 46 meters tall and built from 12 thousand meters of ice, a replica of the Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik, Iceland, is the tallest ice sculpture in China. The structure boasts a 240-meter slide, sculpted from ice.

About 10 thousand workers are involved in fashioning ice (about 590 thousand square feet worth) and snow (492 thousand square feet) into larger-than-life sculptures.

The festival's 30th anniversary theme is "Global Ice and Snow Dream, World Cartoon Tour."

The festival's ice-carved duck is a nod to Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, and his well-traveled rubber duck urban installation.

Structures featured at the festival include the Empire State Building, the Great Wall of China, and the Colosseum. 

The festival first started in 1963 as a traditional ice lantern garden party. The annual event was revived as a permanent fixture in 1985, after being put on the back burner during China's Cultural Revolution.

Ice lanterns have played an integral role during northeastern Chinese winters since the beginning of the Qing Dynasty in 1644, when fishermen fashioned lanterns out of candles and "hollowed-out pails of ice" to use as lights during the winter season.

The festival's length depends mostly on the weather conditions, usually running through the month of February.

Some of the ice bricks used to construct the festival's ice structures were extracted from the Songhua River.

Some of the festival's sculptors use deionized water, which gives ice a completely transparent, glass-like quality.

Artisans can opt to sculpt by hand or by utilizing lasers. Ice picks, chisels, and swing saws are all common tools for festival carvers.

Come February, visitors can take part in closing down the festival by "smashing the sculptures with ice picks."

The display park for Harbin's ice sculptures takes up 600 thousand square meters.

According to the festival's engineering manager, the display park took just 15 days to complete.

Festival organizers cancelled a planned fireworks display to open the festival due to Harbin's air pollution levels.  

In the last two years, the festival has attracted 28.5 million visitors to its icy cityscape.

The festival is split into four areas: the sculptures and Snow World inhabit Sun Island, Zhaolin Park hosts the festival's ice lanterns, and winter sports reside along the frozen Songhua River.

Harbin's nickname is "Ice City." The Weather Channel attributes the low temperatures to arctic air coming down from Siberia.

The festival's sculptures use computer-controlled LED lighting to illuminate at night, according to the Daily Mail.

Harbin landed in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2007 for the largest snow sculpture (named "Romantic Feelings" and measuring in at 115 feet tall and 656 feet wide) as part of its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.

Harbin ranks as China's city with the highest altitude and lowest average annual temperature: a chilly 38 degrees Fahrenheit.

Harbin sends ice sculptors to the United States every November to promote ice carving as an art form.

All photos via Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]