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Kendrick Erickson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

12 Cool Ice and Snow Festivals Happening This Winter

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Kendrick Erickson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Think there's nothing to do in the dead of winter? You might be surprised by how many towns go out of their way to celebrate icy weather and snow. Plus, there are few better ways to warm up than to play outdoor sports, sample regional winter cuisines, and hang out with friends old and new. Here are 12 places where you can do just that.

1. FIRE + ICE FEST // READING, PENNSYLVANIA

Reading, Pennsylvania, invites you to the 2017 Fire + Ice Fest, happening January 13 and 14, 2017. Fire will be represented with performances by Madeleine Belle and Allentown's Burning Hearts Fire & Light Theater. Professional ice sculptures will be on display throughout the event, which could serve as inspiration for the festival's ice carving competition. There's also a pancake breakfast, a chili cook-off, a Snowfall Ball, and live music. The full schedule of events can be found here.

2. BAVARIAN ICEFEST // LEAVENWORTH, WASHINGTON

The Bavarian Icefest takes place in Leavenworth, Washington, January 14 - 15, 2017. 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" (a sport in which teams of four people ski together on one set of skis).

3. ICEBOX DAYS // INTERNATIONAL FALLS, MINNESOTA

International Falls, Minnesota, celebrates its reputation as the coldest town in the 48 contiguous states with Icebox Days, a winter festival running January 18 - 22, 2017. The marquee event is the annual Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run, which features both 5K and 10K runs—no matter what the temperature is. Don't miss the other events: the moonlight snowshoe hike, the toilet seat toss, frozen turkey bowling, redneck trivia, donkey basketball, and plenty of food.

4. OURAY ICE FESTIVAL // OURAY, COLORADO

This year's annual Ouray Ice Festival happens January 19 - 22, 2017 at Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado. The public park has 200 climbing routes made of ice and mixed ice and rock, making it a popular destination for ice climbers. The festival is a celebration of ice climbing, and a fundraiser for the nonprofit park. Events will include climbing clinics and competitions, demonstrations, an outdoor gear expo, and plenty of beer.

5. HUNTER ICE FESTIVAL // NILES, MICHIGAN

The Hunter Ice Festival in Niles, Michigan is named after The Hunter Brothers Ice and 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 20 - 22, 2017, centers around ice sculptures, and the best artists in the craft are invited to Niles to show off their stuff. There will also be races, an Ice Ball, and a chili cook-off. Check out this year's full schedule of events at Facebook.

6. FIRE & ICE FESTIVAL // ROCHESTER, MICHIGAN

This year's Fire & Ice Festival in Rochester, Michigan, will take place January 20 - 22, 2017. The fire is provided by fireworks at night; the ice events include tube sledding, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, dogsled rides, ice skating, a broom ball exhibition, and ice sculptures. Bring your ice skates for free skating all weekend! Keep up with this year's festival at the Facebook event page.

7. ICEFEST // CHAMBERSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA

Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, presents the 15th annual IceFest January 26 - 29, 2017. The festival features a 40-foot ice slide, a snowball fight, and a "Polar Dunk Plunge." There's also nighttime dancing and dining events for those who like to stay warm, a movie night, a chili cook-off, and a cake icing competition. The premier draw will be the professional ice sculptures and ice carving demonstrations. Find out more at the festival's Facebook page.

8. SAINT PAUL WINTER CARNIVAL // SAINT PAUL, MINNESOTA

This year's Saint Paul Winter Carnival will run from January 26 to February 5 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and will kick off the Carnival season in style. The huge festival boasts three parades, plus the Beer Dabbler (featuring craft beer from more than 120 breweries), the junior royalty coronation, a cat show, ice sculptures, and the usual races, parties, live entertainment, and food. Stay current with the festival's plans on Facebook.

9. ELY WINTER FESTIVAL // ELY, MINNESOTA

The Ely Winter Festival in Ely, Minnesota—which will run February 2 - 12, 2017—will kick off with an amateur snow carving contest, and later lead to the Ely Art Walk, an ice fishing tournament, snowshoe hikes, dogsledding, and a beard competition. Plus: Don't miss the ice bar! The schedule of events is here.

10. CRIPPLE CREEK ICE FESTIVAL // CRIPPLE CREEK, COLORADO

The Cripple Creek Ice Festival will run February 11 - 19, 2017 in Cripple Creek, Colorado. The theme for this year's celebration is "Safari in Ice." The town will be filled with ice sculptures, including a slide, a maze, and an ice bar. Plus, the beloved "liquor luge" will make a triumphant return. Check out the website for a full lineup of events.

11. MICHIGAN ICE FEST // MUNISING, MICHIGAN

The Michigan Ice Fest in Munising, Michigan, is a festival centered around ice climbing. This year's event will be held from February 15 - 19, 2017. There will be clinics and classes in the various levels of climbing, including rescue techniques, plus demonstrations and social climbs.

12. NEWPORT WINTER FESTIVAL // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

The 29th annual Newport Winter Festival will take place February 17 - 26, 2017 in Newport, Rhode Island. This festival celebrates the cold and puts a tropical spin on winter at the same time. Outdoor events will include the polar bear plunge and beach polo, plus "Polar Pineapples," where you can sip seasonal cocktails in an ice sculpture garden. There will be both a tropical drink contest and a best hot drink contest, a chili cook-off, and live entertainment. The schedule of events is growing by the day, so click here to find out more. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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