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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
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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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