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5 Winter Sports The Olympics Are Missing

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Winter sports fall into three convenient categories: Hockey, Things That Claim to Not Be Hockey But Aren't Fooling Anyone (bandy, ringette, broomball, etc.) and Things That are Not Hockey. If you're scanning the latter group for a way to stay fit this winter, you may be disappointed by the apparent dearth of options that don't require snowmobile ownership or expensive ski lift tickets. Before giving up entirely or resorting to hockey, consider trying one of these underappreciated snowy-day activities.

1. Skijoring

It only takes one ill-fated ski tour or impulsive NordicTrack purchase to expose the true nature of cross-country skiing. It's hard, grueling work. Although its proponents tout the sport as a wonderful way to experience the sights and sounds of winter, these sights usually involve fogged goggles while the sounds are the skier's own grunting and repeated calls of "Dude, can we take another little break? I just need to catch my breath. Yes, again." The whole endeavor would be so much more enjoyable with some sort of pack animal to drag the skier.

That's where skijoring comes in. Instead of powering themselves along using their own legs like a bunch of common animals, participants hitch themselves to a dog or two and glide through the winter weather. Although this activity sounds like the invention of people who wanted to get into sled dog racing but were too cheap to buy a sled, the sport supposedly originated in Scandinavia several hundred years ago as an easy reindeer-powered way to get around during the winter. Its recreational popularity steadily increased, and the horse-drawn variety earned a featured place as a demonstration sport at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which still holds annual equestrian skijoring races as part of its century-old White Turf series. [Photo courtesy of Canada's Guide to Dogs.]

2. Skibobbing

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"Lousy bike! I could ride you in the winter if your tires were replaced by skis!" Millions of frustrated bikers find themselves muttering these words every snowy day. Little do they know that skibobbing could solve all of their problems, or at least the ones unrelated to cursing inanimate objects. At its core, skibobbing entails riding a bicycle-like frame with skis instead of wheels down a mountain. Really, that's pretty much all it entails.

The sport traces its origins to 1892, when American J. Stevens received a patent for his "ice velocopide." This catchy name somehow failed to trigger widespread use of the device, though, and according the Skibob Association of Great Britain, the sport only gained momentum in the 1940s when patents by German Georg Gfaller and Austrian Engelbert Brenter were combined to form the modern skibob. Enthusiasts competed in the first international race in 1954 and formed the Federation International de Skibob in 1961.

Since the rider's center of gravity remains lower than in regular skiing and the feet and skis combine for four potential points of contact with the ground, skibobbing is relatively safe compared to other downhill sports, and prospective riders can supposedly get the hang of it fairly quickly. Riders shouldn't expect to look cool while doing it, though; the American Skibob Instructors Association recommends wearing a fanny pack of maintenance supplies when skibobbing. [Photo courtesy of Disabled Sports USA.]

3. Snowball Fighting, Military-Style

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History lessons on the American Civil War tend to focus on its depressing aspects: a divided country, rampant gangrene, and Ken Burns appear prominently in most classes. However, despite schedules packed with receiving shoddy medical care and standing still for minutes on end to have their photos taken, some Confederate soldiers found the time to stage what sounds like one of the most strategically sound snowball fights in history.

On January 28, 1863, two feet of snow covered a large contingent of Confederate troops camped in Virginia's Rappahannock Valley. Rather than complaining about the cold weather, the First and Fourth Texas Infantry put their military training to work. On the morning of January 29, they launched a major snowball offensive against their comrades in the Fifth Texas Infantry, who somehow repelled their attackers before deciding to join them in a snow assault on the Third Arkansas Infantry, which surrendered quickly beneath a slushy barrage. The conquered Arkansans joined forces with the victors, and together they set out to pelt the encampment of the nearby Georgia Brigade.

This combined expeditionary force rolled into the Georgian camp armed with bags of snowballs and decorated with battle flags, but the Georgia Brigade had received advance notice and managed to put up a valiant fight for over an hour before eventually falling. The defeated Georgians joined their conquerors and attacking another division. By this point, upwards of 9000 troops were engaged in ice combat that grew increasingly more dangerous as rock-centered snowballs entered the mix.

After hours of this melee, the Texas Brigade apparently won a Pyrrhic victory in which many soldiers sustained slight injuries. In response to the upheaval and the disfigurement of a few troops, General James Longstreet, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, reportedly banned snowball fighting.

4. Wok Racing

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Most people look at a wok and see a cumbersome Chinese cooking vessel they probably shouldn't have put on their wedding gift registry. In 2003 German TV host Stefan Raab looked at one and saw not just a pot in which he could create a delicious stir fry, but also a valid form of downhill conveyance. I don't want to resort to hyperbole and use the word "hero," but, well, the facts speak for themselves. Fans hail Raab as the father of the sport in which single contestants or four-man teams ride reinforced Chinese woks down a bobsled track in timed runs that can exceed 60 mph.

As part of a bet, Raab organized the first wok world championship races at Winterberg in Novbember 2003. Not surprisingly, he also won the first world championship in the sport he'd just made up. Raab's reign at the top was brief, though, as fellow German and three-time Olympic luge gold medalist George Hackl brought his considerable riding-things-down-an-icy-tube prowess to the sport and grabbed the next two world championships. The Jamaican Bobsled Team has also made appearances at the annual championship, thereby igniting speculation that the team probably didn't invest the royalties from Cool Runnings all that wisely. [Photo courtesy of TV Total, via The Sports Pulse.]

5. Shovel Racing

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Unfortunately, there are significant barriers to entering the wild world of wok racing. Not everyone has a spare wok, and even fewer potential racers have access to an Olympic bobsled track. For those who are completely hell-bent on outrunning their friends while riding a household item, shovel racing may be the answer.

Ski slope workers around Angel Fire, New Mexico supposedly began shovel racing in the early 1970s in an effort to get down the slopes quickly after the lifts had closed for the evening. The logic behind why they chose to stick a shovel handle between their legs and slide down the mountains on their rears rather than using skis seems to have been lost to history.

However, it is known that in 1975, Angel Fire Resort began hosting the World Shovel Racing Championships, which offered competitors the chance to square off in two divisions. In the Production group, racers got a regular old hardware-store shovel, waxed it up, and took off down the slopes using only their arms for steering; riders of these stock shovels could hit speeds over 60 mph. In the Modified division, racers turned their shovels into enclosed aerodynamic crafts that bore little resemblance to their cousins used to clear suburban driveways. These 500-pound vehicles could top out over 70 m.p.h. while shooting down the thousand-foot course.

While it may seem difficult to believe, riding a shovel at such high speeds is somewhat dangerous. More specifically, it's incredibly dangerous. In super-modified shovel racing's lone appearance at ESPN's Winter X Games in 1997, leading racers Gail Boles and John Shrader experienced separate horrific crashes in which Boles was knocked unconscious and Shrader broke his back in three places. The sport was not invited back to the games. Even the birthplace of organized shovel racing was forced to abandon the sport; resort administrators eventually cancelled Angel Fire's annual championships in 2005 due to liability concerns. Still, if you've got a shovel, a snowy hill, and no qualms about sticking a shovel handle between your legs, you might want to give it a shot. [Photo courtesy of Enchantment.]

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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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May 23, 2017
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