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8 Festive Chinese New Year Traditions

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Steeped in myth and following traditions that date back thousands of years, Chinese New Year is a 15-day celebration aimed at bringing families together and ensuring good fortune for the year ahead. Here are a few ways people cast off the old and welcome in the new.

1. FAMILY FEASTS

For many Chinese, New Year’s Eve dinner is the biggest, most festive meal of the year. Families gather to feast on dishes like rice balls, turnip cake, fish, spring rolls, and dumplings. Cooks emphasize dishes thought to bring luck, like long noodles and a rice, fruit, and nut medley known as Eight-Treasure Rice.

2. RED ENVELOPES

Gift giving is an important part of Chinese New Year. Hóng bāo (or "red envelopes") with money tucked inside are presented to children and the elderly as a show of gratitude for the year past and the hope for prosperity in the months to come. These days, the tradition has gone digital, with transfer services enabling people to send money through email, text message, and other platforms.

3. CLEANING HOUSE

A new year signals a fresh start, which means many Chinese will wash, sweep, and de-clutter their homes in preparation for the year ahead. It's good exercise, but make sure to do it before the New Year arrives on January 28. Cleaning shortly after the new year arrives is thought to sweep away good luck.

4. DECORATE WITH RED

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In Chinese culture, red is the color of prosperity and good luck. People hang red banners, lanterns, and other accents in an effort to bestow good fortune on their homes. It’s also customary to put out bowls of oranges and apples, along with arrangements of flowers like peonies and orchids. A blossoming flower is thought to foretell blossoming wealth.

5. NEW CLOTHES, NEW 'DO

A fresh start extends to a person’s appearance, as well. In the days and weeks leading up to the new year, many Chinese take time to get a haircut, buy new clothes, and take other steps towards arranging their best look for the year ahead. As with home cleaning, this needs to be done before New Year's Day. Get a haircut in the days following the new year, and you’ll be cutting away your good luck and prosperity.

6. DRAGON DANCES

It’s a familiar sight at Chinese New Year festivals the world over: long, snaking dragons winding their way through the streets, spurred onward by pounding drums. These elaborate dragon floats, meant to celebrate the mythical river beast that symbolizes good luck and chases away evil spirits, require the coordinated movements of anywhere from two to more than a dozen well-trained performers. The longer a dragon dance lasts, the more luck it will bring to those watching.

7. FIREWORKS

The noise and flash of fireworks are thought to ward off evil spirits as the new year begins. Elaborate shows go off throughout China, while U.S. cities like New York and San Francisco stage their own elaborate displays. Each year, New York’s Chinatown rings in the new year with more than 600,000 rounds of firecrackers.

8. LANTERN FESTIVAL

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The 15th and final day of the New Year’s celebration is marked with the serenely beautiful lantern festival, which sees streets, homes, and temples adorned with colorful lanterns meant to bestow good fortune for the coming year. Lanterns come in all shapes and sizes, including those fashioned after the year’s animal (this year it’s the rooster). Some lamps also come with riddles (called dēng mí) written on them to keep children busy. (For example: What belongs to you but others use it more than you do? Answer: Your name.)

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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
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science
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]

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