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Hear Them Roar! 6 More Women Who Beat the Boys

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While the horse racing world is all abuzz over Rachel Alexandra, the amazing three-year-old filly who recently beat Kentucky Derby winner Mine that Bird (along with a field full of other colts) in the Preakness Stakes, we're reminded of some other female athletes of the two-legged variety who also beat the boys at their own game.

1. Billie Jean King, Tennis

In 1973, Billie Jean King was 29 years old and the reigning queen of women's tennis. In an era when female athletes were paid significantly less than their male counterparts, King still managed to earn $100,000 in 1971. Bobby Riggs had won Wimbledon back in 1939, but by the 1970s his star was fading. He kept his name in the press by proclaiming himself a male chauvinist pig and declaring that women athletes could never be as good as men. After defeating Margaret Court in May, he proclaimed "I want King!"

The much-hyped Battle of the Sexes was held at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973. The idea of a woman beating a man in any sport was so unbelievable at the time that Las Vegas oddsmakers heavily favored the 55-year-old Riggs. A worldwide television audience watched via satellite as King neatly thrashed Riggs 6-4, 6-3 and 6-3. Billie Jean King not only took home the prize money and several endorsement deals, she also opened up a new playing field for professional sportswomen.

2. Margaret Murdock, Shooting

Margaret Murdock's father was a Kansas state rifle champion, so it was logical that both she and her sister took up the sport as children. When Murdock attended Kansas State in the early 1960s, she won her varsity letter by competing on the men's rifle team. In 1976 she became the first woman to represent the U.S. on its Olympic shooting team. The small-bore three position competition calls for the shooter to fire off 40 shots each in the standing, kneeling and prone position. The competitors fire from 50 meters away at a target that is a little smaller than a dime. At the end of the competition, Murdock was tied with Lanny Bassham, the team captain. Bassham requested a tie-breaking shoot-off, but Olympic rules forbade it; instead, Bassham was awarded the gold medal because he had scored three "100s" to Murdock's two. During the medal ceremony, Lanny pulled Margaret up from the silver pedestal to stand with him during the national anthem to indicate that she deserved the gold as much as he.

3. Jackie Mitchell, Baseball

jackie-pitcher.jpgVirne Beatrice Mitchell, known to her family as "Jackie," entered the world ahead of schedule and weighed only a little over three pounds at birth. As soon as she learned to walk, her father took her to the ballpark. The Mitchell's next door neighbor in Memphis was future Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance, who was still playing in the minors at the time. He coached Jackie in the art of pitching when she was eight years old and even showed her his trademark "drop pitch," a dazzling throw in which the ball swooped down just before crossing the plate.

When Mitchell was 17 she was offered a contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts, today the AA affiliate of the L.A. Dodgers. On April 1, 1931, the New York Yankees were in town to play an exhibition game against the Lookouts. The game was postponed a day due to rain, and there was a crowd of 4,000 on hand when Mitchell finally took the mound. Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate and southpaw Jackie threw her special pitch. Ruth took the first pitch for a ball, but the next three were strikes. Lou Gehrig, baseball's Iron Man, was up next and similarly struck out. The crowd was on its feet, but some skeptical reporters wrote that the whole thing had been staged, since the game was originally scheduled for April Fool's Day. Nevertheless, Commissioner Kennesaw Landis was sufficiently threatened by the tiny female dynamo that he had her contract voided, stating that baseball was "too strenuous" for women.

4. Seana Hogan, Cycling

hogan.jpgTo Ultra Cyclists, 100-mile events are kid stuff. Ultra Cyclists consider events like the Race Across America (RAAM) "“ a 2,950 mile cross-country jaunt "“ to be a real competition. Seana Hogan of San Jose, California, has won the female division of RAAM an amazing six times, and her finish times in each case usually placed her in the top 15 finishers overall. Ultra Cycling requires about 20 hours of continuous pedaling per day, up hills (a combined total of about 82,000 feet of climbing), down dales and in all weather. Hogan holds the record for the San Francisco to Los Angeles race (beating even the best men's time) and was the overall winner of the 1995 Furnace Creek 508, which runs from Valencia through Death Valley to Twentynine Palms.

5. Danica Patrick, Auto Racing

Danica Patrick's parents met on a blind date at an auto race, so she felt that racing was her destiny. Patrick started competing on the go-kart circuit at age 10, and moved to England at 16 to participate in various racing events and advance her career. In 2000, she finished second in the Formula Ford Festival, the highest finish by an American in that event. She moved back to the States where she competed in the Toyota Atlantic series for Rahal Letterman Racing and won her first pole position. Patrick started her Indy career in 2005, making her only the fourth woman to compete in the 500. Three years later she won the Twin Ring Motegi in the Indy Japan 300, the first female driver to win an IndyCar race.

6. Sonya Thomas, Competitive Eating

sonya.jpgAt five feet, five inches tall and just under 100 lbs., Sonya Thomas gives the impression that the slightest breeze could blow her away. But despite her wispy stature, Thomas is known in competitive eating circles for blowing away the competition, including male contestants three times her size. Thomas remembers being inspired to enter the world of competitive eating after watching Takeru Kobayashi munching his way to the championship at the Nathan's Coney Island hot dog contest in 2002. In 2005 she set a record for female frankfurter consumption in Nathan's annual contest. That wasn't quite good enough for Sonya, however, and she began a training regimen that included walking two hours per day on an inclined treadmill and eating only one large meal per day. Scientific-types hypothesize that Sonya's slim physique gives her an advantage over her more zaftig competitors "“ she lacks a layer of fat around her abdomen, which gives it more room to expand. Whatever the explanation, Thomas has defeated all-comers in various International Federation of Competitive Eating contests, including "the most" oysters, chicken wings and Krystal hamburgers downed in a prescribed amount of time.

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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.