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9 Cruise Ship Activities for Sports Enthusiasts

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Until the International Maritime Organization signed a treaty in 1990 banning the dumping of plastics by cruise ships into the ocean, hitting golf balls off the back deck was as synonymous with onboard entertainment as shuffleboard and skeet shooting. An inventor in California spent the next two years developing fish-friendly, water-soluble golf balls, but the cruise industry never took to the idea. While deck-based driving ranges remain a thing of the past, modern cruise passengers aren't exactly lacking for things to do. Here's a sampling of some of the more interesting offerings.

1. Virtual Golfing

The unrivaled fun of driving balls into the world's largest natural water hazards may be gone for good, but there are several other ways for golf enthusiasts to enjoy their time at sea. In addition to golf nets and driving mats, many cruises now offer high-tech simulators that enable users to play virtual rounds at some of the world's most famous courses, and in a fraction of the time. Using real balls and clubs, plastic grass, and a video screen, simulators combine the feel of hitting a bucket of balls at the driving range with the thrill of teeing off in a PGA tournament. For the kids and more casual golfers, several ships now feature miniature golf courses and putting greens.

2. Surfing

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One of the most unique onboard activities is surfing at the FlowRider surf park, which is featured on several of Royal Caribbean's ships. The 32-foot by 40-foot FlowRider pool uses constant water flow to generate waves for passengers to surf or body board. Other ships offer kid-friendly water parks with slides, including Royal Caribbean's H2O Zone.

3. Bowling

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Norwegian Cruise Line rolled out the first 10-pin bowling alley at sea in 2007 with the launch of the Norwegian Pearl. The alley is the centerpiece of Bliss, the ship's full-deck sports bar and nightclub. In addition to four bowling lanes, Bliss features foosball and air hockey tables, and multiple flat screen televisions. Passengers would be wise to avoid any of the staterooms near the bowling alley, and as for the concern that bowling balls won't roll perfectly true on a moving ship, consider these words of wisdom from the testimonials page at bowlingatsea.com: "You could always balance out whatever roll the waves cause with an extra martini!"

4. Rock Climbing

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It's not exactly scaling a cliff in the Grand Canyon, but the rock-climbing walls that have become standard features on Royal Caribbean ships provide exhilarating views and a good way to work off that pizza from the midnight buffet. The grips on some of the walls, which debuted in 1999, are color coded by degree of difficulty, but a rocking ship is enough to make even the easiest route to 200 feet above sea level a challenge.

5. Ice Skating

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Royal Caribbean debuted the first permanent ice rink at sea when Voyager launched in 1999, and passengers can now practice triple-axels on several of the cruise line's ships. The rinks are typically open to passengers during the day and are used to host shows featuring experienced skaters at night.

6. Bungee Trampolining

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It used to be that kids who wanted to join the circus ran away from home. Now they can go on a cruise. P&O Cruises unveiled the Cirque Ventura circus-training school on its Ventura vessel in 2008. For a small fee, passengers can bounce around on trampolines on the ship's highest deck, all under the supervision of trained acrobats. In addition to bungee trampolining, the Cirque Ventura offers workshops and instruction in tight-rope walking, clowning, break-dancing, juggling, stilt-walking, and the flying trapeze.

7. Horse Racing

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It's probably only a matter of time before live thoroughbred racing takes place on a cruise ship. Until then, passengers looking to satisfy their gambling itch outside of the ship's casino or bingo room will continue to empty their wallets to wager on cardboard cutouts of horses that move according to the roll of the dice. There are countless variations of this classic horse racing game, but most ships that feature the game will sell or auction off the horses at the end of the week. Passengers who purchase a horse often decorate and name their cutout before watching it compete against the rest of the field for a large payout.

8. Walking in the Park

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One of the main attractions on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas, which will launch later this year, is Central Park. Spanning the length of a football field, the park will be surrounded by 300 staterooms and feature tropical grounds, seasonal flower gardens, and canopy trees. The enormous, 16-deck ship will also feature a zip-line cable and a full-size carousel.

9. Wii

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As competing cruise lines continue to roll out new and exciting onboard activities to lure travelers, it's fun to speculate what the next gee-whiz attraction will be. Roller coasters? Bobsled courses? Soccer fields? One recent addition to several ships is the Nintendo Wii. Norwegian Cruise Line added large screens and Wii consoles to its ships, while passengers on some Princess Cruise Line ships can enter Wii Fit competitions. The competitions are shown on giant poolside screens, which are also used to screen movies under the stars.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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