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UFO Festival Roswell

8 Odd Festivals and Events in July

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UFO Festival Roswell

July is filled with local fairs and festivals filled with family fun. But even as each festival tries to stand out among the others, a few float to the top for their wacky uniqueness. Here are some that may be worth planning a road trip around!

1. UFO Festival

Photograph from UFO Festival Roswell.

The UFO Festival in Roswell, New Mexico, opens today! And it runs through Sunday. The festival will host twenty guest speakers in a series of lectures from UFOlogists, UFO enthusiasts, and authors. One of the most anticipated events is the costume contest, Saturday morning for pets and Saturday afternoon for humans in all age categories. Entrants don’t just pose; they also put drama into their presentations! Costume contest participants are invited to return for the UFO Festival Light Parade, after dark on Saturday. There will also be plenty of educational events from NASA at the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium, from museum exhibits to children’s shows to stargazing.

2. Christmas in July Festival

Photograph from Christmas in July Festival at Facebook.

West Jefferson, North Carolina, does something a little different for the Fourth of July: they celebrate Christmas! The Christmas in July Festival takes place in the downtown area tomorrow and Saturday. They’ve been doing this for 28 years, even if the festival doesn’t always fall on Independence Day. The tradition started out as the Ashe County Christmas Tree Festival, to promote the local Christmas tree industry. As with all festivals, you can expect musical performances, great food, and local crafts for sale. In addition, you’ll see Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus, a puppet parade, Civil War battle re-enactments, and the Christmas tree growers' competitions. What? Tree farmers compete in the fertilizer backpack relay, the one-ton fertilizer relay, a tug of war, and the tree bailing contest. That will be something to see!

3. San Fermin in Nueva Orleans

Photograph by Howie Luvzus.

San Fermin in Nueva Orleans happens the same weekend as the famous Running of the Bulls (Encierro) in Pamplona, Spain, which this year is July 10-13. In New Orleans, the festival celebrates in the same way, with one big difference: the "bulls" at this festival are roller derby athletes! The Big Easy Rollergirls and guests from other roller derby teams dress as bulls and chase festival patrons through the streets of New Orleans. That's just one of many events at the annual festival.

4. The Chicken Show

Photograph from the Chicken Show website.

The annual Chicken Show in Wayne, Nebraska, was established in 1981 for several reasons, one of them being that chickens are funny. This year’s show, with the theme “Cluck Dynasty,” will be the weekend of July 11-13. The premiere event is the chicken grilling contest, along with the hot wings eating contest, chicken arts and crafts, the world’s largest chicken dance, egg roulette, and a cement chicken auction. But there are non-chicken events as well: a wine tasting, a pie and ice cream social, the parade, live entertainment, a street dance, and fireworks,

5. Blobfest

Photograph from Blobfest at Facebook.

Blobfest is an annual street fair, festival, and film festival centered around the 1958 horror movie classic The Blob, held in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Make plans now to attend the 2014 Blobfest July 11-13. Movie showings will be at the Colonial Theater, which are not limited to The Blob: you’ll see other classic movies and a short film competition. Other events include the Tinfoil Hat Contest, a parade, street fair, and costume contest. See more at the event’s Facebook page

6. Hemingway Days

Key West is proud of its most famous resident, author Ernest Hemingway, who maintained an estate there most of his life. The town has held its tribute festival, Hemingway Days, for 34 years. This year’s event will be July 15-20, incuding a tribute to what would have been Hemingway’s 115th birthday on July 21st. In addition to the usual festival events, there will be special literary events, plus a Hemingway lookalike contest, historic tours, the Key West Marlin Tournament, poetry readings, rum tastings, and a “bull run,” with lookalike contestants as the bulls.

7. Mid-Atlantic Hermit Crab Challenge

Photograph by Flickr user Jack Siah.

The Mid-Atlantic Hermit Crab Challenge will take place on Saturday, July 26th this year in Virginia Beach. The main event is the hermit crab races, in which 300 crabs are expected to participate. The crabs are placed in the center of the race track, and the first to get to the perimeter is the winner. Winners advance to the premiere event, the Crustacean 500. Trophies are awarded to the top three racers, plus the friendliest, biggest, most unique, etc. crabs. There is also a beauty pageant called the Miss Curvaceous Crustacean Beauty Pageant. It’s open to crabs only, but the displays that people create for them are what really move the judges. The Crab Challenge is free for both entrants and spectators.

8. World Championship Cardboard Boat Race

Photograph by Flickr user AGB in AR.

The World Championship Cardboard Boat Race takes place on July 26th at Sandy Beach in Heber Springs, Arkansas. The cardboard boat that not only survives the race, but wins, will earn the Pride of the Fleet Award. The boat that has the most dramatic sinking will get the Titanic Award -and possibly YouTube fame. There will also be a watermelon eating contest, live entertainment, and a volleyball tournament.

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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]