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The World's 10 Messiest Food Festivals

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Maurizio Montanaro, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

by Brendan Spiegel

If your mother told you never to play with your food, she probably didn't grow up in any of these towns. Whether the food is being worshipped, chased, sculpted, or thrown, we've found 10 spots around the world where picking at your plate isn't just acceptable, it's encouraged.

1. Italy's Orange Battle

Luca Moglia,Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

Every year, townspeople in Ivrea, Italy, celebrate the three days before Lent by pelting one another with oranges. According to legend, the feudal lord of medieval Ivrea was so stingy that he gave his peasants only one pot of beans every six months. In protest, the villagers would throw the beans into the streets. Over the years, the beans were replaced by oranges, which grow plentifully throughout Southern Italy. The custom now known as the Orange Battle involves revelers standing on parade floats and launching the fruit at fellow participants. And it's not uncommon to see a little blood mixed in with all that orange juice. Visitors can join in, but you'll probably want to bring some goggles and a helmet.

2. Cheese Rolling at Cooper's Hill

Michael Warren, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Each spring, a large wheel of cheese is rolled down a steep hill in England, and dozens of British men go tumbling after it. They risk sprained ankles, broken bones, and massive bruising. The big prize? The winner gets to keep the cheese.

While no one knows exactly how or why the first cheese race took place, local legend pegs the tradition on the ancient Romans. The event hasn't always been smooth rolling, though. It hit a rough patch during World War II, when rations made dairy difficult to come by. Instead of sprinting after a full hunk of Double Gloucester, contestants raced after a tiny slice placed inside a wooden wheel. A far greater threat to the competition came in 1997, when so many competitors were injured that authorities implemented some major changes. The following year, the cheese was allowed to roll down the hill, but no one could run after it. Thankfully, the toned-down version of the sport lasted just one year. In 1999, authorities introduced a few more safety measures and then let the cheese chasing resume. The games at Cooper's Hill have been going strong ever since.

3. The Lopburi Monkey Festival

Chris Gusen, Flickr // CC BY NC-2.0

Like many places in Thailand, the city of Lopburi is overrun with macaque monkeys. They swing freely through the streets, hitch rides on top of cars, and snatch food from the hands of unsuspecting tourists. But even though the animals are annoying, the Thais worship them. According to Hindu legend, a god named Hanuman (the Monkey King) once ruled this region. In his honor, the city celebrates once a year by feeding its 2,000-plus monkeys a huge buffet overflowing with tropical fruits, flavored rice dishes, and modern treats such as Coca-Cola.

4. Night of the Radishes

Drew Leavy, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

When Spanish explorers brought radishes to Mexico in the 16th century, farmers near the modern-day city of Oaxaca quickly started farming the veggies. Unfortunately, nobody wanted to buy them. Not knowing what to do with all the extra produce, venders began carving the radishes into ornate shapes and using the vegetable sculptures to lure customers to their produce stands. Amazingly, it worked. The novelty items became so popular that farmers began leaving their radishes in the ground long after harvest season, letting them grow into bizarrely shaped behemoths. Now, December 23 is known as Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). Oaxacans celebrate it each year by gathering in the town square to display and admire elaborately detailed radishes modeled into saints, nativity scenes, and even the town itself.

5. Turkey's Greasy Wrestling Competition

Wikimedia Commons

The Turkish sure do love their olive oil. In fact, they're so obsessed with the stuff that it plays a leading role in one of their treasured national pastimes—the Kirkpinar wrestling contest. At nearly 650 years old, the tournament is one of the world's longest continuously "¨running sporting events. It's also one of the most popular. Each June, more than 1,000 competitors cover themselves in a slick coat of olive oil before entering the ring. All that grease makes for some comically slippery bouts, but that doesn't stop the Turks from taking this event seriously. Millions of spectators turn out for the three-day tournament, and the champion (crowned the "Big Hero") is honored as the country's preeminent sports star.

6. La Festival Gastronomico del Gato

In the small Peruvian farming town of La Quebrada, people have a strange way of honoring their ancestors; every September, they gorge themselves on cats. The locals host the epic feline feast to pay homage to the town's settlers—impoverished slaves who once survived on nothing but cat meat. Despite outrage from animal-rights activists and feline lovers around the world, the festival only grows more popular each year. Recent feasts have even offered more creative options for foodies, such as cat Milanese and grilled cat with Peruvian black mint. Devotees say it tastes like (what else?) chicken.

7. The West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off

Never let it be said that West Virginians can't poke fun at themselves. The annual Roadkill Cook-Off embraces the state's hillbilly image by celebrating a 1998 law that allows people to cook any meat found on the side of the highway. The festival's motto—"You kill it, we grill it!"—sums up the menu perfectly; it's a smorgasbord of scavenger's delights, including deer fajitas, BBQ buzzard, and squirrel gravy over biscuits.

8. Greece's Clean Monday Flour War

Sleeping Beauty, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND-2.0

Many parts of the world go crazy during Carnival, but in the Greek seaside town of Galaxidi, it's all about the day-after festival, known as Clean Monday. That's when locals pummel each other with bags of multicolored flour, powdering the entire town like a doughnut. The food coloring in the flour is strong enough to stain old buildings, so before they unleash more than 3,000 lbs. of the stuff in the streets, the people of Galaxidi cover much of the city in plastic.

9. The Mame-Maki Ritual

For centuries, the Japanese have marked the beginning of spring as a time to drive evil spirits out of their homes. The most common method for achieving this is the mame-maki ritual, during which families toss roasted soybeans around their houses and chant "bad luck out, good luck in!" At the end of the ritual, participants pick up and eat a bean for each year of their lives, assuring good fortune for the year ahead. Nowadays, children can be seen madly tossing beans onto the street, while celebrities and monks alike host parties in large temples and shower the crowds with soy.

10. Shepherd's Shemozzle

Leave it to the Kiwis to out-weird us all. Hunterville, New Zealand, is home to the Shepherd's Shemozzle, a 2-mile race in which shepherds and their dogs trek through an obstacle course that offers a different eating challenge each year. Past trails have included sheep's eyes and oil-marinated bugs, but the 2008 contest may have been the strangest of them all. Contestants had to run 50 meters while clenching raw bull testicles in their teeth. Then, before the taste was out of their mouths, they had to eat a brick of dry Weetabix cereal, followed by a raw egg and a warm can of beer.

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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.