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Masters of Their Domain

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The Master: Estonian "athlete" Margo Uusorg is probably the world's greatest wife carrier. At the annual Wife Carrying World Championship in Sonkajärvi, Finland (where first prize is the wife's weight in beer!), Uusorg has emerged victorious five out of the past seven years (his brother Madis won in 2004) . He's also the only man to have won with three different female partners (you don't have to carry your own wife, see). Uusorg and his fellow Estonians are so dominant in the sport, which involves sprinting with wifey across various surfaces and water obstacles, that their technique has come to be known as "the Estonian." So, what is the Estonian? A position that's definitely not in the Kama Sutra, it involves a spouse hanging upside down with her arms around her husband's waist while her legs are clutching for dear life to his neck.
angkor_wat_jump-rope.jpgThe Domain: World Records
The Master: Ashrita Furman currently holds 33 Guinness World Records, including the record for having the most Guinness World Records. In his record-setting career, which began after he dropped out of Columbia University in the mid-1970s, 51-year-old Furman has set or beaten more than 100 records, including longest continuous pogo sticking (23.11 miles), most completed hopscotch games in 24 hours (434), fastest 10 km sack race (1 hour, 22 minutes, 2 seconds), and the longest period of continuous juggling underwater (48 minutes and 36 seconds). And he's single, ladies! On the downside, Furman is a devoted follower of the Indian philosopher Sri Chinmoy, who preaches strict celibacy.
damone_roberts_eyebrow_seminar.jpgThe Domain: Eyebrow Plucking
The Master: Known as "The Eyebrow King," Damone Roberts has plucked and sculpted the world's most famous eyebrows, from Paula Abdul to Amanda Peet to the Backstreet Boys. A visit to Damone's Beverly Hills salon will cost you $60, but it's well worth the expense. After all, he's America's only eyebrow sculptor to have registered his own name as a trademark! Now that's classy.
Movies_Wordplay-Shortz_0625.jpgThe Domain: Enigmatology
The Master: Will Shortz. It's no contest, really, because Shortz is the only person in human history to graduate college with a degree in enigmatology (the study of puzzles). After receiving the honor from Indiana University in 1974, Shortz went on to a career in puzzles, and in 1993, he landed the best job in the business, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle. His work there is legendary among crossword enthusiasts, as is Shortz's 20,000-strong collection of puzzle books and magazines. As historian of the National Puzzlers' League, Shortz goes by the nickname WILLz, which puzzlers will recognize as a rebus puzzle that translates to Will Short "˜z'.
250px-Various_AOL_CDs_with_packaging_removed.jpgThe Domain: Collecting AOL CDs (a surprisingly competitive field)
The Masters: Collectors of the infamous AOL "free hours" CDs are legion. In fact, there are dozens of "rare" AOL CDs auctioned on eBay every day. But the masters of the AOL CD collecting domain are undoubtedly Jim McKenna and John Lieberman, two Californians who started collecting the discs back in 2002. Since then, they've amassed more than 385,000. (By the way, if you stacked those suckers up, they'd be taller than the Empire State Building.) When they get to the 1 million mark, they plan on returning the whole lump sum to AOL and asking the company to stop mailing unsolicited CDs.
madmonday_wideweb__430x315.jpgThe Domain: Chessboxing
The Master: Bulgarian Tihomir Titschko is currently the European chessboxing champion—and, because the sport hasn't really spread to other continents, that makes him the de facto world champ. Chessboxing starts with a four-minute round of chess, followed by a two-minute round of boxing, and then it's back to the chess. A judge decides the winner after 11 rounds (six of chess and five of boxing), unless the match is stopped first by a knockout or checkmate. And if you're thinking Lennox Lewis could probably beat Bobby Fischer at chessboxing, you're right. While it's important to be not horrible at chess, it's more important to know how to survive in the ring.
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The Domain: High School Badminton
The Master: Miller Place High School in New York. Between 1973 and 2005, the Miller Place High School badminton team won 504 consecutive games. Sadly, the streak ended on April 12, 2005, when they were beaten 10-5 by Smithtown High School. But fret not, high school badminton fans! Miller Place is back to its winning ways and has already started racking up the trophies again.
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The Domain: Pitching Professionally While Under the Influence of Drugs
The Master: Dock Ellis was a pretty eccentric baseball player, which befits a man who now claims he never played a major league game sober. On May 1, 1974, for instance, Ellis attempted to hit every batter in the Cincinnati Reds' lineup. In the first inning alone, he pelted Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Dan Dreisen. Tony Perez dodged four pitches and walked, but after Johnny Bench was nearly beaned twice, Ellis was removed from the game. But by far, Ellis' oddest accomplishment came on June 12, 1970, when (per his autobiography) he became the only major league player ever to pitch a complete game no-hitter while tripping on acid. Luckily, Ellis sobered up after his retirement and now works as a drug treatment counselor.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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