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7 Insane Food Competitions

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The Nathan's Hot Dog"“Eating Contest is only the most famous of all eating contests. And the ones on Fear Factor are only the most contrived. But if you're looking for a lesser-known chow challenge to show off your plate-cleaning prowess, these gastronomic free-for-alls might be just the place to start.

1. Matzo Balls

It ain't easy keeping kosher. Especially for contestants in the Ben's New York Kosher Deli
Charity Matzo Ball"“Eating Tournament. The contest is a charity fund-raiser for the Inter-
faith Nutrition Network sponsored by a New York"“area deli chain. The record holder for
2004 is Eric "Badlands" Booker of Copaigue, Long Island, who ate 20 matzo balls in five
minutes and 25 seconds. If that doesn't sound like a lot, you should know that these matzo balls were roughly the size of tennis balls. Oy! The winner gets a trophy and a $2,500 gift certificate to a stereo store, while runners-up get various prize packages, all of which involve tickets to a New York Islanders game. Umm . . . all that matzo for Islander's tickets? We're thinking we'll pass.

2. Live Mice

Mice, corned beef and easily the most disastrous vodka drinking competition in history all after the jump...

a2.jpgThe MTV show Jackass spawned a lot of copy-cat dumbasses. But two hungry fellas in Brisbane, Australia, win the prize. Participating in a contest at Brisbane's Exchange Hotel in which they were dared to eat a live mouse, the two men competed for a grand prize that was a vacation package worth a handsome $346. Both men chewed the tails off, and the "winner" actually chewed his mouse whole and spit it out. Needless to say, the RSPCA, Australia's version of our own SPCA, wasn't thrilled about the stunt and got the Queensland police on the participants'—um—tail. If caught, the winner will face fines of $75,000 and two years in the pokey.

3. Pickled Quail Eggs

Texas may have plenty of barbecue contests and chili cook-offs, but nothing holds a candle to the Pickled-Quail-Egg-Eating Contest held annually in Grand Prairie, a town between Dallas and Fort Worth. Begun as a publicity stunt by a flea market called Traders Village, the contest determines who can down the most pickled quail eggs in 60 seconds. Quail eggs are roughly the size of a large olive, and the rules stipulate that they must be eaten one at a time. In 2003, the contest was won for the seventh straight time by Grand Prairie resident Lester Tucker, who downed 42 in a minute. So, what's the secret to old Lester's success? He swallows them whole.

4. Cessna 150

a5.jpgYes, that's an airplane. And the guy who ate it is a French gent named Michel Lotito, who goes by Monsieur Mangetout (French for "Mr. Eats Everything." See what he did there?). Lotito engaged in the stunt to earn a place in Guinness World Records (his actual record is for Most Unusual Diet: two pounds of metal per day), but his iron stomach's downed a lot more than just a plane. He's also the proud eater of 18 bicycles, a bunch of TVs, a wooden coffin, and several supermarket shopping carts. Not to mention all the lightbulbs, razor blades, and other knickknacks he's downed on variety shows. Looking for a reason why you shouldn't try this at home (or with your home)? Well, Lotito's got a natural advantage because his stomach lining is twice as thick as a normal person's.

5. Black Pudding

a4.jpgIt's hard enough to eat a little bit of some English food, much less a lot of it. And black pudding is not a dish you want to overindulge in. But don't let the name of this delicacy fool you. This treat from northern England and Scotland isn't pudding in the yummy, creamy, Bill Cosby sense of the word. It's more like a sausage, and it contains oatmeal, onions, spices, plenty of suet, and a whole lot of pig's blood. Hence the black. In 1998, the Robert Peel pub in the English town of Bury, near Manchester, decided to start a black pudding"“eating contest. The first winner was Martin Brimelow, who ate nine black puddings. Though he was ahead, his victory was assured when he ate a special black pudding injected with Tabasco sauce, which counted as two.

6. Corned Beef and Cabbage

Mo's Irish Pub in Milwaukee celebrates its very Irish heritage with dignity and class: an annual Corned Beef and Cabbage"“Eating Contest. The winner in 2004 was Ed "Cookie" Jarvis, a veteran eating-contest competitor (he holds 29 titles) who weighed in at an intimidating 419 pounds. Jarvis packed away over five pounds of corned beef and cabbage in 10 minutes, beating the closest competitor by almost two pounds. Need an idea of just how fast that is? He packed away his first plate in a mere 80 seconds! As in many eating contests, there are only two ways to get disqualified: cheat or puke. It's a wonder this contest wasn't followed by an unofficial Gas-X Binge-Drinking Bout.

7. Vodka

a3.jpgSure, there are beer-drinking contests, so why not vodka-drinking contests? Well, here's why. In 2003 a bar in the southern Russian town of Volgodonsk decided to hold just such a competition. After all, Russians are famous for their ability to hold their vodka, and annual consumption is over 15 liters per person. The winner would get . . . well, more vodka. Ten liters of it, to be exact. Sadly, the winner never got to claim his prize. After downing 1.5 liters of vodka in under 40 minutes (which is about 51 shots), the vodka champ passed away about 20 minutes later. What about the runners-up? The five other contestants got treated to full luxury stays in intensive care. Frighteningly enough, many of the ones who weren't hospitalized actually showed up at the same bar the next night.

Ed. Note: This list was pulled from Forbidden Knowledge.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]