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10 Great American Animal Races

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Growing up in upstate New York, my dad and I would go to the Saratoga Races every August. There's nothing like watching your horse come around the final turn, battling for the lead. So events like this weekend's Preakness Stakes always bring back some very cool memories.

But horses aren't the only animals with a racing tradition. Here are ten examples.

1. Calaveras County Jumping Frogs

These high-jumping amphibians, made famous by Mark Twain, are actually battling it out right now. The Calaveras County Fair & Jumping Frog Jubilee began on Thursday. If you hurry, you may still be able to get a bet in.

2. Ostrich Festival Races (Chandler, Arizona)

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Did you know Ostriches can exceed speeds of 40 miles per hour? The good folks of Chandler, Arizona, do. I'd love to see this one, just to see what kind of wacky jockey decides to sit on an Ostrich. I'm thinking there may be alcohol involved.

3. Armadillo Races (Edgewood, Texas)

Imagine little round knights in not-so-shiny armor, racing around a dirt track. Sounds kinda cute. Although I've read they grow to 2 1/2 feet. That's considerably less cute. Armadillo racing became popular in Texas in the 1970s, and the Armadillo World Headquarters is in Austin. (You heard me...the Armadillo World Headquarters.) Guess they're mighty proud of their armored mammals down in Texas.

4. Camel Races (Virginia City, Nevada)

You wouldn't think there would be camel races in the United States. Then again, we do have a big desert, so why not? The Virginia City Camel Races are a nostalgic reminder of the Comstock Lode, the first large discovery of silver ore in the U.S., when I suppose they used Camels to transport the silver. According to the official website, they also race ostriches and emus, because that's how they roll in Nevada.

5. Cockroach Races (Davenport, Iowa)

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This is one of the slimier races I've come across. The annual cockroach races are held by the entomology club at Iowa State University. And if you've ever hung out with the members of the Iowa State Entomology Club, you know this is one rockin' event. They also put on something called the Insect Horror Film Festival, which features gourmet insect tastings. Who says there's nothing to do in Iowa in October?

6. Lizard Races (Lovington, New Mexico)

How do you celebrate the 4th of July, with fireworks? How last season. The folks in Lovington, New Mexico, like a few lizard races with their barbeque. The Chaparral Park speedway is apparently the world's premiere mini-reptile racetrack (Go USA!). And there's a colorful history to the event, as well.

At the inaugural race in 1976, the lizards, frightened by the big crowds and flashbulbs, apparently started to eat each other (you can't make this stuff up).

Modifications to the track and crowd placement have decreased the reptile carnage in recent years. But there's always a chance one of the little guys will go all Godzilla on the competition.

7. Wiener Dog Races (Buda, Texas)

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Who doesn't love wiener dogs? Not only do they look great dressed up for Halloween, but you can also make a little extra cash with them at the track. Head down to Buda, Texas, in April, and you'll enjoy the annual wiener dog race (and parade!), as well as the yearly chili cookoff.

8. Lobster Races (Aiken, South Carolina)

You would think an annual lobster race would be held in Maine, but the city of Aiken, South Carolina, has been racin' crustaceans "“ that's right, the Aiken racin' crustaceans "“ since 1985 as a spoof of the Kentucky Derby. This year's race, which just happened a couple weeks ago, drew close to 10,000 fans.

9. 4th of July Celebration & Porcupine Race (Council, Idaho)

Squeeze this one in between visits to the Potato Museum and Philo Farnsworth's home. The race is held each year for charity, but I'm sure a few dollars need to be taken out for bandaids, just in case any participants make their way into the crowd.

10. Great Alaskan Pig Races

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And we end our collection of Great American Animal Races in the 49th state. Why race pigs in Alaska, you ask? If you had to pick something other than dog sled teams, you'd think moose, or elk. Something that represents the state, right? At least, I did. But Alaskans appear to prefer pigs. They're quick little guys, too. And in these races, there are hurdles. I may need to find a Vegas sports book that takes pork action.

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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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