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6 Awesome April Events from All Over

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The return of warm weather and the celebration of Easter give us many traditional festivals. They don’t look the same everywhere; in fact they are so different they won’t fit into any category, except they happen in April. Which of these would you jump on a plane for?

1. Naghol Land Diving Festival, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

Photograph by Flickr user

The island of Pentecost, in the nation of Vanuatu, invented the sport of bungee jumping, but it’s not like anything you’ve seen elsewhere. The tradition is called Gol or Naghol, or land diving in English. Men of the Sa tribe build a tower 20 to 30 meters tall, and jump off the top, secured only by a vine tied to their ankle. If the vine is too long or not ripe enough, the man may die (the last such death was in 1974). The ritual is a passage to manhood, a male fertility rite, and a prayer for a good harvest, all rolled into one. Although restricted to men, the legend behind the story has a woman bungee jumping:

In it, a wife escapes from her abusive husband, Tamalie, who discovers her up a tree. In exchange for coming back down, he promises to beat her, but only a little bit this time. However, if he has to climb up to retrieve her, he promises to beat her a lot. She refuses his “offer” and remains in the tree until eventually Tamalie makes the climb. Once he reaches her, she quickly hurls herself from the branch falling to the earth below. He dives after her to catch her (whether out of guilt or hubris isn’t known), and falls to his death, not realizing that she had cleverly tied liana vines around her ankles to prevent herself from falling all the way down.

Photograph by Flickr user Paul Stein.

Before a jump, the participant loudly proclaims his skill and bravery from the top of the tower. The aim of the jump is to touch the ground, but not enough as to cause death. The Naghol Festival was once restricted to April, but the tourist boom has caused the festival to stretch into May and June in the past few years. Jumps will take place on Saturdays, beginning April 5th. Spectators are limited to 50 per event.

2. Kanamara Matsuri Festival, Kawasaki, Japan

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The Kanamara Matsuri Festival is the Festival of the Steel Phallus, but locals just call it the Penis Festival. It is held the first Sunday in April, which is the 6th this year, in Kawasaki, Japan. The legend behind the festival involves a demon who invaded a woman’s vagina and bit off any penises coming her way, until a blacksmith forged a steel phallus that defeated the demon. The legend led to the veneration of the steel phallus, and its enshrinement. The shrine was used by Shinto prostitutes praying for protection from venereal disease, and they would carry giant phalluses through the streets. The procession is still tradition, along with other festival activities like dancing, food, and souvenirs. Not that you’d want to show them off in your living room. See more pictures here. Be warned that all of these links contain NSFW images. It wasn’t easy selecting one for this list that might not offend.

3. Semana Santa de Sevilla, Seville, Spain

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Holy Week, leading up to Easter, sees traditional rituals and festival all over the world. Seville, Spain, is particularly known for their week of public rituals and processions, called Semana Santa, which people travel from all over the world to see. Seventy different groups (church brotherhoods) dressed in medieval hoods and robes, carry life size depictions of Holy Week scenes through the streets in these processions. Semana Santa festivities will take place from April 13th to 20th this year.

4. World Marbles Championship, Tinsley Green, UK

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The British and World Marbles Championship is held every year on Good Friday in Tinsley Green, West Sussex, England. This year’s competition is on April 18th. The tradition began in 1588, when two men competing for a woman’s hand agreed to decide the outcome on a series of sporting events, which lasted a week, but the final outcome was decided by a game of marbles. The modern incarnation of the tournament has been held annually since 1932, with only wartime interruptions. Competitors come from all over Europe, plus the United States and Australia.

5. Rouketopolemos, Vrontados, Greece

Photograph from Atlas Obscura.

Rouketopolemos is the traditional Rocket War that occurs between two churches in Vrantados in the Greek island of Chios. Fireworks are commonly detonated across many Greek communities at midnight at the beginning of Easter Sunday. But in Vrontados, the rockets are aimed at the bell towers of St. Mark's and Panaghia Ereithiani, two hilltop churches. The tradition goes back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, but no one is quite sure what the real story was. The churches are battened down ahead of time, and the police mostly turn a blind eye to the war, but will step in if someone is injured.

The war launches during Easter evening services, and upward of 80,000 small rockets are launched. As a "winner" can rarely be verified, the rivals agree to continue the war next year. The presence of huge numbers of tourists gives the two factions encouragement to continue the tradition. This year’s battle will take place on the evening of April 20th.

6. Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland

Photograph by SixSigma.

Beltane, the Gaelic May Day, begins on the sunset of April 30th and runs through the sunset of May 1st, and is the halfway mark between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. Presented by the Beltane Fire Society, the Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh is a cultural remnant of the old pagan holiday.

Photograph by Stefan Schäfer, Lich.

The Fire Festival takes places on the evening of April 30th on Calton Hill in Edinburgh. It begins with a procession led by the May Queen and the Green Man. A performance retells the mythical story of the earth’s step into summer, and the bonfires are lit. The performers dance, and are joined by spectators.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]