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7 Things You Should Know About The Kentucky Derby

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I was born and raised in Kentucky, a background that usually doesn't offer much in the way of conversation fodder. By the first Saturday in May each year, though, the Kentucky Derby has made the rest of the world curious about my home commonwealth, and I find myself fielding all sorts of Derby-related questions. Last year, I decided it would just be easier to write down my answers.

1. What are the origins of the Derby?

Kentucky has been a hotbed of the sport of kings since at least the 18th century, but the Derby didn't begin until 1875. Colonel M. Lewis Clark, a grandson of the Lewis-and-Clark-expedition William Clark, needed a slate of races for his newly formed Louisville Jockey Club, so he decided to run three stakes races at the track's first meet. The races—the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks, and Clark Handicap—were named after England's three marquee races, the Epsom Derby, the Epsom Oaks, and the St. Leger Stakes. The first Derby was held May 17, 1875; Aristides beat the field. (Interestingly, both Aristides' trainer and jockey were both African Americans.)

By 1883, the track would become known as Churchill Downs in recognition of John and Henry Churchill, Clark's uncles who secured the land for the course. The first runnings of the Derby were also 1.5 miles long; the standard distance of 1.25 miles wasn't adopted until 1896.

2. Why is the Derby called "The Run for the Roses"?

roses.jpg Because the winner gets a blanket of 554 red roses after the race. Whether a horse would rather receive a more practical gift, like some oats or a lump of delicious sugar, is up for debate, but the garland has become a beloved tradition. The practice springs from Derby parties Louisville's socialites threw in the early days of the race. Each lady would receive a red rose at the parties, and when Churchill Downs' president Colonel Lewis Clark saw their popularity, he made the rose the race's official flower.


According to the Derby's organizers, 1896 Derby winner Ben Brush received the first garland of roses, and in 1925 journalist Bill Corum coined the term "Run for the Roses." The first blanket of roses like the one used today was awarded to the victorious Burgoo King in 1932. The modern garland is topped with a "crown," a single upturned rose that signifies the struggle a winner must endure. Since 1996, each winner's garland has been immediately freeze-dried for posterity.

3. What's that song they play to the horses?

The University of Louisville Marching Band's playing of "My Old Kentucky Home" as the horses trot onto the track for the post parade is another beloved Derby tradition. The tune, which was penned by Stephen Foster in 1853, is the official state song of Kentucky, and it's been played at every Derby since 1921. Well, almost. The song received a few changes when the Kentucky General Assembly adopted it as state song in 1928, they had to clean up the lyrics a bit, including changing the offensive "darkies" to "people" in the first verse.

4. What the heck is a furlong?

The Kentucky Derby runs for 1.25 miles, but you may hear some mention of furlongs, too. A furlong is a unit of distance equal to one eighth of a mile. Originally, a furlong referred to the length of the furrow running across an open ploughed field, but now it's mostly used to measure distances for horse racing.

5. What's a mint julep?

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A mint julep is delicious, that's what it is. More specifically, it's the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby. A julep consists of bourbon (another Kentucky specialty), mint, sugar, and crushed or shaved ice. The sweetness of the bourbon complements the bruised mint and sugar, and the ice makes it a frosty warm-weather drink. Since the ice is broken up, though, juleps should be thrown down the hatch quickly; otherwise the ice will melt and dilute the drink.

6. Why is the mint julep so popular?

Well, we already mentioned that it's delicious. It's also stood the test of time. John Milton mentioned a "cordial Julep" as far back as 1634, and the first known mention of the mint julep in print popped up in an 1803 travelogue. Red Bull and vodka hardly has that sort of historical backing.

Don't have bourbon? Then you can't really make a julep. Don't even try to make a julep with rye instead of bourbon; the spicy flavors of the rye just don't measure up. As the humorist Irvin S. Cobb once teased his friend H.L. Mencken's mixing abilities with the quip, "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves would put scorpions in a baby's bed."

Ironically, though, the Kentucky Derby is one place that you won't get a "real" julep. The official julep of the Derby is made with Early Times, which is a Kentucky whiskey, but not a bourbon. This quibble doesn't make the drink any less popular, though. Each year over 120,000 juleps are served at the Derby. (Here's the recipe.)

7. Do I want to ingest something called "burgoo"?

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That depends on whether or not a thick stew of meats and vegetables sounds tasty to you. Burgoo is a classic Kentucky dish that could add a touch of authenticity to your Derby party. According to common wisdom, it's best made in a gigantic pot and stirred with a clean 2x4. There's no standardized recipe for burgoo, but it's usually got pork, mutton, or another meat mixed with vegetables, potatoes, beans, and spices. It's a dish that varies quite a bit from cook to cook, but it's usually tasty and makes a great Derby-day snack. [Image courtesy of White Trash BBQ.]

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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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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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