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Alternative March Madnesses: 9 Tourneys TV Isn't Covering

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After the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament, only sixteen teams still have a shot at the title. Your bracket is probably in disarray. March Madness has brought you nothing but anguish and pain. What's a fan to do? Cheer up, March isn't just about hoops. Here are some great March championships you may have missed, and some you can still catch if you hurry. Here are some of our favorites you might have missed:

1. The World Coal Carrying Championships

That's not a misleading title. It's an actual championship where people carry coal, and you just missed its most recent running on Monday. The contest started in 1963 in Gawthorpe, a small village in British coal country. Two friends, Reggie Sedgewick and Amos Clapham were enjoying a brew when a third man, Lewis Hartley teased Sedgewick that he looked a bit worn out. A vigorous debate over the two fellows' relative fitness ensued, and it was decided that they would run a race on Easter Monday while carrying large sacks of local coal.
Since then the event has gained fame, but the same basic idea persists: competitors are given a 50-kilogram bag of coal and told to run from The Royal Oak to the village's Maypole, a distance of 1108.25 yards. The world record is held by David Jones of Meltham, who made the spring in just over four minutes in both 1991 and 1995.

>>8 more after the jump.

2. West Virginia Pinewood Derby Championship

a.pinewood.jpgThe NASCAR and Formula One seasons may be heating up, but some racing purists still prefer to see cars that are carved out of a block of balsa wood and run only on that cleanest-burning of all fuels: gravity. If you're one of those fans who can't wait to see how a little graphite lubricant will affect a pair of tiny plastic wheels, get to Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport, West Virginia on March 28th and 29th for a two day blowout featuring as many as 600 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts racing their creations. If you can't stand to be a spectator, there's also a Mom's and Dad's Division; just tell the organizers that your kid is "that one over there in the Cub Scout uniform."

3. FIPS-Mouche World Fly Fishing Championships

a.fly2.jpgShould you find yourself on New Zealand's North Island between now and Sunday, you might want to consider checking out the 28th World Fly Fishing Championships. The event, which began on March 22, is challenging some of the world's top anglers to pull in brown and rainbow trout from Lake Otamangakau and Lake Rotoaira. Working in five-man teams, the anglers fish in five three-hour sessions, then have their catches scored by judges. The team with the highest overall score is the winner. The real winners, though, are the fish. Wait. No. They're the losers.

4. Pan Jiu-Jistu Championship 2008

a.jiu.jpgBrazilian jiu-jitsu is a martial art based on ground fighting and grappling. One of its tenets is that a smaller, weaker person can defend himself against a stronger attacker by gaining a dominant position through leverage, then applying a series of joint locks or chokeholds. Sounds pretty entertaining to watch, right? Get to California State University, Dominguez Hills in Carson, California by Friday to see some top-flight grappling.

5. World Championship Cheese Contest

a.cheese.jpgSadly, we already missed the 2008 edition of this classic, but there's no harm in getting excited for the next running of the biennial event, is there? The host of the event, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association describes the event like so: "This contest is an objective assessment of cheeses and butters and awards gold, silver and bronze medals to the finest products in 79 classes." So if you're tired of overly subjective judging of dairy products, this could be the championship for you to watch. Kudos to Michael Spycher of Kaserei Fritzenhaus in Switzerland; his "Le Gruyere Switzerland" took home the honors as the world champion cheese.

6. Cowboy Action Championship

Another one that's already passed, but man, do we ever wish we'd seen it. Each year the Single Action Shooters Society holds Winter Range, a national championship to discover who is in fact the fastest, most accurate gun in the West. Using only single-action firearms, the older "cowboy" style of gun that must be manually cocked between each shot, competitors ride horses through obstacle courses while shooting balloons and stalk through fabricated old-time towns to shoot at model silhouettes of varmints. Next year's competition if March 4th-8th near Phoenix. Buy a six-gun and book a room now. This video from this year's competition should tell you all you need to know:
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7. National Shag Dancing Championships

a.shag.jpg"Shag nationals," as they're known, have been held in Myrtle Beach since 1984 as a celebration of the swing-dancing variant. The championships allow both professional and amateur shaggers to be judged on the basis of smoothness, degree of difficult, togetherness, execution, and repertoire. Each couple's dance must display a number of compulsory steps, including a duck walk, a boogie walk, and a belly roll with a male lead. If you know what any of those phrases mean, you should certainly find your way to Myrtle Beach for next March's annual showdown.

8. Microsoft Server Championship Competition

a.server.jpgMarch Madness meets American Idol meets IT guys in this fourth annual championship, which takes place on Saturday at Microsoft's Hong Kong office. Three-person teams of programmers meet with a "customer" who gives them a business problem. The team must then use Microsoft's Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server 2008, and Windows Server 2008 to craft an answer to the problem. The winning squad gets HK $10,000 apiece, free HP laptops, and the most coveted server-guru plum of them all: a job interview with Microsoft.

9. American Crossword Puzzle Tournament

a.tyler.jpgCrossword enthusiasts' annual answer to the World Series was featured in the great documentary Wordplay, and this year's contest came to a close on March 2nd with a familiar result: Tyler Hinman, just 23 years old, won the tournament for a fourth time. The annual competition, which is organized by New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, sees top puzzlers attempt to accurately complete eight original puzzles as fast as they can. The grand prize winner takes home $5,000 and the adoration of puzzle enthusiasts everywhere.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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