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Five Sports That Should Become Popular in America (and how it can happen)

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It's no secret that the sports universe in America is pretty sheltered- we've got football, baseball, basketball and a bunch of other miscellaneous ones. Still, there are those few random games that capture our attention "“ poker had its day and people are even starting to pay attention to soccer now that Posh Spice's husband plays here. In the interest of expanding our culture's sports horizons, here's a look at five sports that ought to become more popular, along with tips on how to get the word out.

Cheese Rolling

Cheese rolling is an exercise in simplicity "“ the event literally entails rolling a wheel of cheese down a hill and chasing it. The official event takes place in Gloucestershire on Cooper's Hill, a rather steep incline. The event, not surprisingly, attracts plenty of drinking, which can lead to injuries when combined with a high-speed chase down a steep hill. One year, two thirds of the contestants got injured and in 1998, the police shut down the event for public safety. Cheese rolling has a rich history, having combated food rationing (contestants instead chased a wooden wheel with a small piece of cheese inside) and a ban on rural activities due to the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.

How to make it popular: Make a cheese rolling movie. Ryan Gosling stars as a British man whose family has been chasing the cheese for three generations. However, when he finds out he is lactose intolerant, he flees the country and abandons the sport. He receives word that his father is on his deathbed and emotionally returns to Gloucestershire to honor his family by participating in that year's race. Woody Harrelson co-stars as his cantankerous, yet loving, personal coach, a former cheese roller himself.

Tuna Throwing and more after the jump...


Kabaddi is a lot like Red Rover; it sounds easy enough for kids to play during recess, but it wouldn't go a week before someone got hurt and the game got banned. To play, all you need is a field, two teams and the lung capacity of Louis Armstrong. Each team "“ usually 12 players with five reserves - takes one half of the field. They then take turns sending one person across to the other side. He has to run around and touch as many opposing players as possible, then make it back to his side, all while chanting "kabaddi" in one breath. If the other team blocks him from getting back before he breathes (or passes out), he is out; if not, anyone he touched is out. The sport is popular in rural areas of Asia and has made minor splashes on the world scene, including a rumored demonstration match at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Today, the sport draws players from around the world to its annual World Cups, clips of which are available on YouTube.

How to make it popular: Any press is good press, so why not use scandal to get the name out? Riding the coattails of the Mitchell Report, news can break of underground Kabaddi players using steroids to increase their lung capacity.

Tuna Throwing

tuna throwing picture.jpgComing up next January, the Tunarama festival is arguably the highlight of the year in Port Lincoln, South Australia. Even though the festival has such attractions as a slippery pole competition and camel rides, nothing can top the tuna throwing competition. For a grand prize of $7,000, contestants have to launch a full-grown tuna like a hammer throw. For those who were concerned, the competition only uses only spoiled fish, so the event is even somewhat Peta-friendly.

How to make it popular: Current record-holder Sean Carlin (who hurled his tuna an astounding 122 feet) can pull a David Beckham and give tuna throwing some star power here. The undisputable hunk (shown here in his days as an Olympic athlete) just needs to marry a former pop star and sign a huge contract to do professional tuna throwing in Los Angeles. ESPN can take care of the rest of the marketing.

Man versus Horse Marathon

This event is pretty self-explanatory. It's literally a marathon (actually, the route is 22 miles, but who's counting?) where humans and horses race against each other. The race is held annually in the tiny British town of Llanwrtyd Wells. Last June marked the 27th running of the marathon and only the second time a human has topped the horse. In fact, the horses were so dominant that a runner didn't win until the 25th running in 2005.

How to make it popular: This begs for a reality show in the vein of "Dancing with the Stars." With celebrity horses, that is. Who wouldn't want to watch the former Black Beauty compete against one of the Budweiser Clydesdales and a gaggle of marathon runners?


buzkashi.gifThe national sport of Afghanistan, Buzkashi is kind of like polo, except that it's played with a calf's carcass. The calf (or goat, if a calf isn't available) is decapitated and placed in a hole in the ground. Riders on horses compete to grab the body, ride around two poles, then get it back in the "circle of justice." The winner is the one who gets the calf into the circle, even if he didn't carry it around the poles, which makes the game mostly pointless until the end. Still, it's eternally popular in Afghanistan (the Taliban even allowed infrequent matches to be held) because of the way the spirit of the game mirrors the Afghan spirit.

How to make it popular: Let's be honest, Buzkashi wouldn't last half a match in America. Any attempt to make it popular would get hit with a backlash even Michael Vick didn't experience. Still, it could probably merit a special on Spike TV.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]