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13 Lucky Facts About St. Patrick’s Day

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Before you don your "Kiss me, I'm Irish" tee and set out to find a perfect pour of Guinness (or four), read up on some history of the day where we all claim to be at least a wee bit Irish.

1. WE SHOULD REALLY WEAR BLUE.

Saint Patrick himself would have to deal with pinching on his feast day. Though we've come to associate Kelly green with the Irish and the holiday, the 5th-century saint's official color was "Saint Patrick’s blue," a light shade of sky blue. The color green only became associated with the big day after it was linked to the Irish independence movement in the late 18th century.

2. ST. PATRICK WASN'T IRISH.

St. Patrick's grave at Ireland's Down Cathedral. Getty

Although he made his mark by introducing Christianity to Ireland in the year 432, Patrick wasn’t Irish himself. He was born to Roman parents in Scotland or Wales in the late 4th century.

3. IT USED TO BE A DRY HOLIDAY.

As you might expect, Saint Patrick’s Day is a huge deal in his old stomping grounds. It’s a national holiday in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, but up until the 1970s, pubs were closed on that day. (The one exception went to beer vendors at the big national dog show, which was always held on St. Patrick’s Day.) Before that time, the saint's feast day was considered a more solemn, strictly religious occasion. Now, the country welcomes hordes of green-clad tourists for parades, drinks, and perhaps the reciting of a few limericks.

4. SO DO NEW YORKERS.

New York City's St. Patrick's Day Parade, circa 1960. Getty

New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is one of the world’s largest parades. Since 1762, roughly 250,000 marchers have traipsed up 5th Avenue on foot—the parade still doesn’t allow floats, cars, or other modern trappings—and celebrities like Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and Miracle on 34th Street actress Maureen O'Hara have served as Grand Marshal.

5. CHICAGO LITERALLY RUNS GREEN.

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New York may have more manpower, but Chicago has a spectacle all its own. The city has been celebrating St. Patrick by dumping green dye into the Chicago River since 1962. And though the organizers won't reveal their exact formula, we do know that the orange powder used is dispersed through flour sifters by the local Plumbers Union.

6. FOR SOME PARADES, IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS.

Not every city goes all-out in its celebratory efforts. From 1999 to 2007, the Irish village of Dripsey proudly touted that it hosted the Shortest Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in the World. The route ran for 26 yards between two pubs. Today, Hot Springs, Arkansas claims the title for brevity—its brief parade runs for 98 feet.

7. THERE'S A REASON FOR THE SHAMROCKS.

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How did the shamrock become associated with St. Patrick? According to Irish legend, the saint used the three-leafed plant (which is not to be confused with the four-leaf clover) as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity when he was first introducing Christianity to Ireland.

8. COLD WEATHER HELPED ST. PATRICK'S LEGEND.

In Irish lore, St. Patrick gets credit for driving all the snakes out of Ireland. Modern scientists suggest that the job might not have been too hard—according to the fossil record, Ireland has never been home to any snakes. Through the Ice Age, Ireland was too cold to host any reptiles, and the surrounding seas have staved off serpentine invaders ever since. Modern scholars think the "snakes" St. Patrick drove away were likely metaphorical.

9. THERE'S NO CORN IN THAT BEEF.

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Corned beef and cabbage, which has become a traditional St. Patrick’s Day staple for Irish Americans, doesn’t have anything to do with the grain corn. Instead, it’s a nod to the large grains of salt that were historically used to cure meats, which were also known as "corns."

10. AMERICANS RUN UP QUITE A BAR TAB.

All of the St. Patrick’s Day revelry is great news for brewers. A 2012 estimate pegged the total amount Americans spent on beer for St. Paddy's celebrations at $245 million—and that’s before tipping the bartender. Not only that, but Americans headed to Ireland were estimated to spend $955 million on flights, accommodations, and other tourism industry staples.

11. IT COULD HAVE BEEN SAINT MAEWYN'S DAY

According to Irish legend, St. Patrick wasn’t originally called Patrick. His birth name was Maewyn Succat, but he changed it to Patricius after becoming a priest.

12. THERE ARE NO FEMALE LEPRECHAUNS.

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Don’t be fooled by any holiday decorations showing lady leprechauns. In traditional Irish folk tales, there are no female leprechauns, only nattily attired little guys who spend their days making and mending shoes (meaning they earned that gold they're always guarding).

13. THE LINGO MAKES SENSE.

You can’t attend a St. Patrick’s Day event without hearing a cry of "Erin go Bragh." What’s the phrase mean? It’s a corruption of Irish Éirinn go Brách, which means roughly "Ireland Forever."

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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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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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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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