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Fire & Ice Festival at Facebook

10 January Ice and Snow Festivals

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Fire & Ice Festival at Facebook

The polar vortex that brought frigid temperatures to a big part of the U.S. and Canada this past week may be easing a bit, but it's got cold weather on our minds. We can stay in and weather it out, or we can embrace it, like some northern communities do. Some even have annual festivals in January to celebrate ice, snow, and the charms of winter weather. Let's take a look at a few of them, and just hope that a blizzard doesn't spoil the festivities!

1. Ouray Ice Festival

Photograph by Flickr user katsrcool (Kool Cats Photography).

The 19th annual Ouray Ice Festival takes place today through Sunday at Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado. The public park has 200 climbing routes made of ice and mixed ice and rock, and is a popular destination for ice climbers, and the festival is a celebration of climbing. It's also a fundraiser for the non-profit park. Events include parties tonight, climbing clinics, films and demonstrations, and climbing competitions.

2. The Big Chill

Photograph by Flickr user jonnyfixedgear.

The Big Chill in Racine, Wisconsin, this weekend is a municipal festival that's also the host of the Wisconsin State Snow Sculpting Championship for the third year. A dozen huge snow sculptures will be constructed in downtown Racine by two-man teams hoping to advance to the national competition. Other events include ice sculpture carving, dogsled rides, and the more common festival activities.

3. Plymouth Ice Festival

Photograph by Flickr user Debra Drummond.

The city of Plymouth, Michigan will hold the annual Plymouth Ice Festival this Friday through Sunday. In addition to the usual festival events, there will be traditional ice carving contests for both individuals and teams, and the dueling chainsaws contest, which is a timed ice-carving contest. The sky will be lit by blazing ice towers on Friday and Saturday nights.

4. Icebox Days

Photograph from International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

International Falls, Minnesota, celebrates its reputation as the coldest town in the 48 contiguous states with the Icebox Days winter festival, January 16-19. The marquee event is the annual Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run with both 5K and 10K runs, no matter what the temperature will be. Don't miss the other events: the ugly hat contest, the moonlight snowshoe hike, the toilet seat toss, turkey bowling, basketball and hockey games, and plenty of food.

5. Hunter Ice Festival

Photograph from Hunter Ice Festival.

The Hunter Ice Festival in Niles, Michigan is named after The Hunter Brothers Ice & Ice Cream Company, which established ice harvesting as the town's big industry around the turn of the 20th century. The festival, which takes place January 17-20, centers around ice sculptures, and the best artists in the craft are invited to Niles to show their stuff. There will also be races, the Ice Ball, and a chili cook-off.

6. Bavarian Icefest

The Bavarian Icefest takes place in Leavenworth, Washington, January 18-19. Events include dogsled rides, the "ice cube scramble" for kids, snow sculptures, ice carving, ice fishing, a snowball toss, a snowmobile sled pull, and smooshing. Smooshing is a sport in which teams of four people ski together on one set of skis.

7. Fire & Ice Festival

Photograph from Fire & Ice on Facebook.

The Fire & Ice Festival in Rochester, Michigan, takes place on the weekend of January 24-26. The fire is provided by fireworks at night; the ice events include tube sledding, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, dog sled rides, ice skating, a broom ball exhibition, and ice sculptures. New this year: a food truck rally. Bring your ice skates for free skating all weekend! More events are listed at the Facebook page.

8. IceFest '14

Photograph from IceFest on Facebook.

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, presents the 12th annual IceFest from January 30 through February 2. The festival features a 40-foot ice slide, a scavenger hunt, and a "Polar Dunk Plunge." There's also nighttime dancing and dining events for those who like to stay warm, and a chili cook-off and a cake icing competition. The premiere draw will be the over 70 ice sculptures that will be on display throughout the town. Find out more at the festival's Facebook page.

9. Michigan Ice Fest

The Michigan Ice Fest in Munising, Michigan, is a festival centered around ice climbing. This year's event will be held from January 30 through February 2. There will be clinics and classes in the various levels of climbing, from beginners to rescue techniques, and demonstrations and social climbs.

10. Saint Paul Winter Carnival

Photograph by Flickr user politalk_tim.

The Saint Paul Winter Carnival will be 11 days long: January 23 to February 2 in St. Paul, Minnesota (of course). This event kicks off the Carnival season in style. Such a large festival requires three parades, plus the Beer Dabbler, the royalty coronation, ice sculptures, and the usual races, parties, live entertainment, and food.

Carnival season? Oh, you bet there will be more festivals in February. Watch for those coming soon!

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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]