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Offbeat Animal Competitions

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If you find something fun to do with your pet, chances are there are others out there who enjoy it, too. You are most certainly familiar with horse racing, dog shows, and county fair livestock judging. But you may not be familiar with some of these animal competitions.

Dog scootering is an adaptation of dogsled racing for areas with no snow, where one or more dogs pull a scooter or kick bike. Dogs Across America is an annual relay event that welcomes dog scooterers, as well as bikejorers, sulky drivers and mushers (other dog-pulled conveyances). The relays will be held in different states in October, November, and December. If you are interested in dog scootering, you'll find an introduction to the sport at Sled Dog Central.
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If your dog would rather dance, Musical Canine Freestyle may be for you. People and dogs dance together to show off the dog's obedience, talent, and style. The World Canine Freestyle Association has information on competitions, training, and local organizations.

See a canine freestyle performance, and other animal competitions after the jump.

Carolyn Scott and Rookie are probably the best-known Freestylists on the internet, due to the video of their performance of You're the One that I Want. There are plenty of other canine performances available at YouTube.

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The town of Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales hosts the annual Man vs. Horse Marathon. The event was first held in 1980, but the first time a human won the 22-mile race was in 1989, when Tim Gould won riding a bicycle. Huw Lobb was the first man to beat the horses on foot, in 2004. In this year's race, two men beat the first horse! Green Events has more information and photos.

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You didn't know there were obstacle course competitions for bunnies, did you? Rabbit jumping began as a sport in the late 70s in Sweden. Rabbits compete in the straight course, crooked course, long jump, and high jump. Rasmus Bjerner has information, including instructions for training rabbits to hop. Watch a video of a rabbit hopping competition.

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Though not a sport involving pets, worm charming has been a competitive activity since 1980. The World Worm Charming Championship is held annually in Willaston, Cheshire, UK. Entrants are assigned a 3x3 meter plot, and have 30 minutes to draw worms out of the ground. Competitors use music, garden forks (but not to dig), and other implements to cause the ground to vibrate, which attracts worms. A similar event is held in Florida.

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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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