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16 Offbeat Holidays You Can Celebrate in September

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Summer is (unofficially) over, but don't despair; there's still plenty to celebrate in September—even after Labor Day's long weekend has wrapped. These holidays are all fairly innocuous, but if you do take issue with something said here, just remember: it's Be Kind To Editors and Writers Month.

1. The many month-long celebrations in September

In addition to being extra sweet to your favorite Mental Flossers, there are a whole host of other groups to be honored this month. All September, take time to celebrate Fall Hat Month, Happy Cat Month, National Honey Month, National Mushroom Month (maybe not together with the honey), National Milkshake Month, Shameless Promotion Month (follow me on twitter @HannahRKeyser), Sea Cadet Month, One-On-One Month and, as hopefully follows from the preceding, Pleasure Your Mate Month.

2. September 4: Newspaper Carrier Day

Celebrated annually on the anniversary of the hiring of Barney Flaherty as the first paperboy back on September 4, 1833 by Benjamin Day, publisher of the New York Sun.

3. September 5: Be Late For Something Day

Well, if you insist.

4. September 7: National Grandparents' Day

Held annually on the first Sunday after Labor Day since 1978. Many other countries have their own version sometime during the year and, unlike the U.S., they don't all make grandmothers and grandfathers share a day.

5. September 10: Swap Ideas Day

This is less of a celebration and more of a reminder to not hoard good ideas—they're much more useful out in the open.

6. September 13: Kids Take Over The Kitchen Day

This feel-good celebration started by Young Chefs Academy is designed to teach the highly important and oft-overlooked life skill: cooking.

7. September 14: National Hug Your Hound Day

Not to be confused with National Dog Day (August 26) or National Puppy Day (March 23), this holiday, in just its second year of existence, hopes to increase awareness of dog-friendly urban spaces by encouraging pet owners to shower their pooch with affection.

8. September 16: Anne Bradstreet Day

Photo courtesy of Sarnold17 via Wikimedia Commons

September 16 was officially proclaimed a holiday by the governor of Massachusetts to honor an under-appreciated figure in the history of American literature. Anne Bradstreet, who emigrated to the colonies along with her family in 1630, is considered to be America's first poet for her 1650 work, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, published, supposedly, without her knowledge.

9. September 18: Hug A Greeting Card Writer Day

If you can find one—as far as I can tell, they only exist in quirky romantic movies.

10. September 19: International Talk Like a Pirate Day

Perhaps the most widely-known offbeat holiday, because who doesn't relish the chance to call everyone "matey"?

11. September 22: American Business Women's Day

First recognized by Congressional resolution in 1983, this honoring of the female half of the workforce is celebrated annually on the anniversary of the 1949 founding date of the American Business Women's Association.

12. September 22: Hobbit Day

On the birthday of both Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, J.R.R. Tolkien fans celebrate all things Lord of the Rings. It is also the day that determines the larger celebration of Tolkien Week.

13. September 24: National Punctuation Day

Take time, once a year, to appreciate the difference a well-placed comma or semicolon makes in reading comprehension; I know I will.

14. September 26: Hug A Vegan Day

Unless they're also a greeting card writer—then I think you're still covered.

15. September 27: Fish Amnesty Day

The fish probably won't know it, but PETA calls for one day of no fishing to give our finned friends a break.

16. September 29: National Attend Your Grandchild's Birth Day

It's unclear why this is a national event. Or how you're supposed to celebrate if your grandchild isn't born on September 29.

All photos courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.

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technology
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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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