8 Sports Your Dog Can Play

If movies have taught us nothing else, it's that animals have great potential as athletes. In movies, golden retrievers can play basketball, mules can kick field goals, and chimps can play hockey. Unfortunately, when you try to recreate any of these scenarios with your own pets, it's inevitably disappointing. Don't give up yet, though. Dogs can be pretty stellar athletes in the right context. So why don't you and your dog try a sport a little more suited to their four-legged abilities? Like, for instance, one of these:

1. Flyball

Any old mutt can run around. Being a teammate is tougher, though. Flyball seeks to build this sort of fellowship. It's a relay for teams of four pooches to test their speed and catching abilities. Teams of four dogs are lined up at a start line, and when the first dog is released, he dashes down the 51-foot course, clearing four hurdles along the way, and hits a spring-loaded "flyball box." The box shoots a tennis ball into the air. The dog jumps up and catches the ball, then runs back down the course to the starting line, where the next pooch takes off. The first team to get all four members through the course wins, but penalties are assigned for dropping the ball or starting before the previous dog crosses the finish line.

Flyball originated in southern California in the 1960's and received a serious boost when Herbert Wagner invented the spring-loaded ball-launching box. According to the North American Flyball Association, the sport's popularity has advanced to the point where timing and scoring is done electronically. The team Spring Loaded holds the world record for the event; all four dogs completed the course in 15.22 seconds combined.

2. Musical Canine Freestyle

Your dog can sit, stay, and roll over, but can he dance? Musical canine freestyle lets pooches get down to their favorite tunes. In the event, dogs and their handlers pick a song and choreograph a dance routine, and then they boogie. The sport, which originated around 1989, showcases a dog's obedience and athleticism while also building teamwork between dog and handler. Each dog-handler pair's routine is then judged on its artistic and technical merit. Really, you should just watch this fantastic video of a routine straight out of Grease.

3. Bikejoring

Have you ever gone out for a bike ride, only to wish someone could just pull you along? That's where bikejoring and your dog come into the picture. Like its cold-weather relative skijoring, bikejoring involves having a team of harnessed dogs pull a biker. Any type of dog that could be used for mushing and pulling can be used for bikejoring. The sport encourages communication and teamwork between the dog and the rider; otherwise the cyclist is likely to end up in a ditch. The dogs seem to love it, and it makes some impressive videos like this one possible.

4. Earthdog Trial

When you see a dachsund or a miniature schnauzer, you probably don't think, "Ah! That's a vicious killing machine!" If you were a rat, though, you'd probably see things a little differently. For years these kinds of small dogs, along with many breeds of terriers, were prized for their abilities to control rodents. Their diminutive statures allowed them to slip into underground tunnels and nests to catch rats and other pests that hid in dens.

This sort of work has been largely outsourced to exterminators, but some owners still want to know how deft their dogs are as hunters. Earthdog trials offer dogs a chance to navigate courses of underground tunnels while trying to find rodent quarry, typically a rat or rabbit. The American Kennel Club's earthdog trials test dogs on three criteria: ability to find a scent, willingness to enter a dark tunnel, and willingness to find the quarry. When the dog finds the quarry in the tunnels, it must then "work" it by barking, scratching, or pawing at it. Don't worry too much about the rats, though; they're protected in boxes and aren't harmed. Here's a look at a terrier doing some earthdog tunneling.

5. Dog Pulling

Many breeds are meant to be workers and can get lazy or out of shape if they spend all of their time loafing on the couch. The International Weight Pull Association seeks to find a constructive outlet for these pups by having them pull weighted sleds or carts across 16-foot tracks. The organization describes the event as a tractor pull, but with dogs in place of the tractors. Canine competitors are divided into weight classes, and whichever dog can pull the most weight across the course wins. Handlers aren't allowed to touch the dogs or give them treats once the pull starts, so the onus is on the pooch to pull away. Typical breeds for the sport include huskies, rottweilers, and pit bulls, all of which were originally working breeds and can use pulling as a nonviolent outlet for their energy.

6. Disc Dog

Throwing and catching a Frisbee-type flying disc is a great way to let your pet run around and get some exercise. To many people, though, it's also a competitive event. The term "disc dog" encompasses several types of competitive disc events. In toss and fetch competitions, the dog and owner have sixty seconds to complete as many catches as they can on a marked field. Each catch earns points, with longer catches being more valuable. Bonuses are also rewarded for mid-air catches.

In freestyle competition, dogs and their handlers perform choreographed catching routines involving jumps, spins, and other tricks. Judges then score routines based on their flair, execution, and degree of difficulty. Not surprisingly, these events are pretty visually impressive, and if YouTube is any indication, seem to be quite popular in Asia.

7. Belgian Ring

Belgian ring is a specific example of the larger genre of protection sports, or events that test how well a dog can protect himself and his master. Belgian ring (also known as "Belgian Ringsport") originated in (surprise) Belgium in the early 20th-century as a way to test the country's working police dogs, notably Belgian shepherds. Formal ringsports were first held in 1908, testing a dog's abilities in fairly standard obedience events like walking without a leash, jumping, and retrieving items. Unlike other obedience competitions, though, the program tested dogs' protective mettle. They guarded items that belonged to their handler, defended their handler from attackers, and attacked protective-suit-clad assailants.

These competitions remain popular for shepherd and rottweiler owners throughout Europe and the U.S., as do defense sport variants like French Ring and Germany's Schutzhund. While the dogs may look fierce while protecting their owners, they must have fairly even temperaments and be willing to stop attacking on command.

8. Lure Coursing

If greyhound racing and rabbit hunting came together, the resulting hybrid might look a little like lure coursing. In the event, purebred sighthounds (think greyhounds, Irish wolfhounds, salukis, etc.) chase a mechanical lure through a field course. The lure moves and turns through the course to simulate a running hare. Under the American Sighthound Field Association rules, each dog is graded on its speed, endurance, agility, follow, and enthusiasm.

The sport originated in the early 1970s in California. Lyle Gillette and his sighthound-fancying friends who enjoyed rabbit hunting with their dogs. However, barbed wire fencing and other obstacles in the fields made it somewhat dangerous for the dogs, so they created a sport in which the course was controlled but the dogs still get the exercise and stimulation of tracking rabbits.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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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]