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Why Is Sumo Wrestling Such a Big Deal?

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Quick, name a Japanese sport! Well, you probably said "sumo" because you've already read the headline of this article. But when it comes to the martial arts, sumo is inextricably associated with Japan. But how did it get started, and why is it still so popular? Read on for those answers and more.

A shaky (but violent) start

The first mention of wrestling in a Japanese text was in the Nihon Shoki, one of the oldest books of the region's history, finished in the year 720. Records of fights that roughly resemble today's sumo don't emerge until much later, in the medieval period. Samurai, who often fought each other one-on-one, would learn wrestling techniques to help them in bouts.

sumo - painting.JPGOrganized fights for entertainment purposes, however, didn't come about until the early 1600s. The transition from war to stable peace under the new Tokugawa regime left many samurai unemployed. These masterless samurai (ronin) were bound to their own elite class and were not allowed to find work among the lower classes of merchants, artisans and peasants. Some ronin who found themselves in need of some cash would put on street-corner sumo matches for money. Meanwhile, other samurai fought in shrines or temples to pay for those shrines' renovations.


In certain entertainment districts, known as sakariba, the street fights would get out of hand "“ the violence would escalate beyond the one-on-one combat, and spectators might get involved and cause property damage. As a result, for decades the government tried to get sumo off the streets. Their first attempts in the 1640s were met with little success, but they had a bit more luck in 1661, when the shogunate decreed that even feudal lords (daimyo) were not allowed to hire wrestlers for entertainment. Sumo didn't stop completely, but its practice dropped off precipitously for about 20 years.

Making sumo legit

So, how did a sport that the government once banned turn into a symbol of Japanese culture? The trick that enabled sumo's rise from the ashes was a deft melding of nationalism, organization and the Shinto religion.


The ban on sumo was lifted in 1684 after the government was convinced that the sport emphasized the philosophy and spirit of Shinto, an ancient Japanese religion formed from strands of local beliefs, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. At this point in the Tokugawa reign, the notion of a unified, national "Japanese" culture was slowly but surely beginning to come into place; this gradual evolution was accompanied by a growing distaste for all things inauthentic and foreign. So, associating sumo with what was widely accepted as the native religion was one hell of a PR stunt. It worked "“ led by ronin Ikazuchi Gondaiyu, promoters negotiated an end to the ban with the shogunate.


gyoji - Eckhard Pecher.JPGThe concessions that promoters like Ikazuchi had to make, however, came in the form of new rules that all fighters would have to observe. These rules are now considered indelible to the sumo legacy. They included the creation of a dohyu, or ring, surrounding the fighting area, and a ban on particularly violent fighting techniques like teeth smashing and eye gouging.


The new regulations also called for the gyoji, or referee, to wear clothes that make the sport seem even more steeped in tradition than it is. The ref's cotton or silk getup is meant to resemble the clothes of a 12th century warrior, and those large wooden fans the gyoji carry (gunbai) are replicas of fans that samurai would use to signal messages to troops. By connecting sumo with religion and Japanese history, its modern organizers instantaneously gave it a sense of heft and importance that propelled the sport forward.

How do you become a hero?

tegata - malnova.JPGOf course, no national sport would be complete without a little healthy idol worship. By the 1780s, you could buy mechanical wind-up toys of the wrestlers on the street, and wrestlers also began to sell tegata, hand prints like the one pictured to the left. The winners in the top division of fighters were well-respected, especially among the lower classes, but a vibrant hierarchy soon developed around them. Around this time, the term "yokozuna" came into play to refer to the very best wrestler, the one all the spectators and other wrestlers were supposed to look up to; the Japan Sumo Association, which is like the NFL of wrestling, officially wrote the yokozuna into the rules in 1909. To get promoted to the elite position of yokozuna, a wrestler must win at least two tournaments in a row. But alongside the pride of being named to such a privileged spot there is also the expectation that the champion will continue winning. If the yokozuna loses too much, he is forced into retirement.


But whether you win or lose is also a big deal to the other sumo wrestlers. At the end of each of the six annual tournaments, those with losing records get demoted and go down in salary; those with winning records move up in the ranks. Even if the title of yokozuna is out of reach, being promoted to the top division, the Makuuchi, is an honor, plus it yields the best pay.


young wrestlers - public domain.JPGConsequently, sumo is taken a lot more serious than, say, the WWE, and not just because it's not staged. These days, wrestlers enter training organizations, known as stables, in their early teens, and stay for the rest of their careers. Working your way up to the top of a stable, and then to the Makuuchi over the course of a successful career, is a marathon effort and a demanding challenge. Even if some of the traditions associated with the bouts were generated inorganically, sumo is grounded in a sense of honor and merit. The modern-day rules were developed over the course of four centuries, but sumo gains a deserved legitimacy from its timeless nature.

(Photos licensed under Creative Commons and public domain: top photo by Yves Picq; gyoji photo by Eckhard Pecher; tegata photo by Wikipedia user Malnova).

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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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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.

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