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7 Fantasy Camps Where You Can Live The Dream

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You might play fantasy football, but what if your fantasy is to really play football with the stars? If you've got some time and a little bit (okay, usually a lot) of cash, you can get the experience of really being on the field through a sports fantasy camp. You might not even have the requisite skills to be traded for a conditional seventh-round draft pick, but once your check clears, you can get in the game at any of these fantasy camps:

1. Hot Shots Curling Camp

Imagine curling alongside Glenn Howard. It sounds almost too good to be true, right? Wait, who's Glenn Howard? If you're one of curling's legion of passionate fans, you know. Howard, a three-time world curling champ, is just one of the celebrity instructors who can give leads, seconds, thirds, and fourths pointers on how to elevate their games at this camp. Clinic topics covered at the weekend-long camp include "Effective Brushing," "Reading the Ice," and "Matching Stones." The curling camp is offering three dates in Oakville, ON, Ottawa and Utica, NY, throughout the late summer and early fall, so you, too, can learn the finer points of curling in time for the 2010 Olympics.

2. USA Luge Lake Placid Fantasy Camp

luge-camp.jpgCurling's not the only Winter Olympic sport you can brush up on before the torch lights up in Vancouver. USA Luge is offering a fantasy camp at Lake Placid, the site of both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Games, and for $2,000, you can learn how to slide down an icy run on your own. Since flying down the chute with no experience is probably incredibly dangerous, the camp breaks newbies in on start ramps in a refrigerated facility before taking on the big drops. Although it sounds a bit pricey, how many chances do you get to race down a world-class luge run? Instead of watching the Olympic luge and saying, "Wow, that looks like a lot of fun!" you'll be able to just nod your head knowingly like an ice-tested veteran.

3. Michael Jordan Flight Schools

Want to shoot hoops with His Airness? Are you at least 35 years old? Do you have $17,500 you're just dying to spend? If so, you can hit up MJ's senior camp at the Mirage Hotel in Vegas from August 15-18. For all that dough, you get to run with a team of other camp contestants in scrimmages. That might not sound all that cool, but each team gets two "elite coaches," and Jordan's not throwing the term around loosely. Last year's event boasted a coaching staff that was a veritable checklist of coaching royalty, including Dean Smith, Larry Brown, Chuck Daley, and Hubie Brown. (I counted at least dozen NCAA championship rings and a handful of NBA titles to the staff's credit.) If everything breaks just right, you might even get to take on Jordan in a game of one-on-one, and you might just beat him. In 2003, Ariel Investments CEO John Rogers pulled off the rare feat, and he's got the YouTube video to prove it.

4. Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp

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Scores of Golden Domers have dreamed about slipping on the blue and gold to take the field in South Bend, and if you've got the cash, you can make it happen from June 17-21. Participants get four non-contact practice sessions with Notre Dame coaches, sit-downs with the coaching staff to talk about strategy and recruiting, and tours of Irish football facilities that generally aren't open to the public. The price is steep, though; a ticker in will set you back at least $5140, more if you're not a Notre Dame alum. Still, for some people it's a small price to pay to be a part of Notre Dame's glorious football tradition. (I'm assuming this camp focuses on Notre Dame's glory days, not the more recent Charlie Weis-led campaigns, if only because "Making Excuses," "Deflecting Media Questions About Your Coach's Competence," and "Wishing You'd Gone to Ohio State Instead" aren't listed as camp activities.) [Image credit: Michael & Susan Bennett.]

5. Pro Wrestling Fantasy Camp

It's easy to mock pro wrestling for being fake, but even if the outcomes of the bouts are scripted, the moves look like they take quite a bit of skill to pull off safely. The wrestling coaches at Toronto's Squared Circle Training can apparently turn any Joe off the street into, at the very least, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, though. In November 2008 the trainers ran a weekend fantasy camp that promised to teach attendees holds, rope running, match pacing, and how to cut a killer promo, all for just $150. Let's hope they also taught campers how to come up with an unstoppable gimmick to win over fans everywhere. (If not, I'll offer one can't-miss suggestion for any aspiring grapplers: a cowboy/Frankenstein hybrid.)

6. Iditarod Dog Mushing Trip

The Iditarod is one of the truly unique events in all of sports, and it's also nearly impossible for a casual fan to replicate. After all, very few of us have our own teams of sled dogs. Alaska Dog Sledding offers weeklong sled dog mushing tours for $2500, and for an extra grand you can time your trip to overlap with the Iditarod in March, which gives you the chance to see the end of the race, meet the racers and their dogs, and generally soak in the chilly Iditarod vibe. Sure, the trip isn't cheap, but compared to buying your own sled and team of dogs, it's a steal.

7. Wayne Gretzky's Fantasy Camp

gretzky-camp.jpgThe Great One definitely gets the award for cleverest pricing plan; an admission to Gretzky's six-day camp costs $9,999, a play on the 99 he always had stitched on the back of his sweaters. Like Jordan's camp, Gretzky's offers teams of weekend warriors the opportunity to take the ice with their hero, get pointers, and play some hotly contested scrimmages. Members of the camp's winning teams get their names engraved on the Gretzky Cup, which Wayne displays at his restaurant in Toronto. (Any former champion who makes a pilgrimage to see the cup gets a free lunch.) Last year's camp included appearances from NHL stalwarts like Lindy Ruff and Bobby Hull, with all the proceeds going to Gretzky's charitable foundation, which helps provide hockey equipment for underprivileged children. For added realism, sign up for a stint at Gretzky's hockey camp while sending your wife to a fantasy sports gambling camp.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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