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5 Alternative World Cup Tournaments

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The melodic tones of the vuvuzelas have faded, marking the end of yet another exciting World Cup tournament. With Nielsen ratings up compared to the 2006 games and everyone's Twitter feed inundated with little soccer balls, perhaps America is finally catching football fever. But now that the games are over, what do we do with our enthusiasm for international competition? Here are a few alternative World Cups you might want to follow until "The Beautiful Game" rolls around again in four years.

1. The UFO World Cup

The UFO World Cup is one of the premiere competitions for "disc dog," the sport where talented canines snatch Frisbees out of thin air. Founded in 2000, the organization has taken a novel approach to disc dog competitions by using a points system similar to the one used in NASCAR racing. Dogs earn Cup points based upon how well they do in local competitions, which consist of three categories: the Freestyle, a crowd-pleasing favorite where the dogs and their human handlers go through a choreographed routine of disc-catching tricks; the Throw & Catch, which gives the dogs 60 seconds to catch as many discs as they can, scoring points for the distance they travel to make the catch; and the Longshot, where the catches get incrementally farther away.

The dogs with the highest number of World Cup points from their local contests earn a place in one of the nine regional championships held in places like Los Angeles; Houston; Assen, Netherlands; and Karlsruhe, Germany. Then, in September 2010, Cup points leaders from around the globe will convene in San Diego for the World Cup Finals to determine who truly is the head of the pack. With five of the regional contests completed for this year, the UFO leaders include American dogs Maggie, Bayer, Sketch, Bella, and a German dog, Remus. But there are still plenty of local and regional tournaments yet to be played, so it's really any dog's game at this point.

2. The Underwater Rugby World Cup

Sure, you could follow the regular old Rugby World Cup, but how long can those guys hold their breath underwater?

Underwater rugby was developed in 1961 in Germany as a warm-up exercise for diving clubs. The game, which actually resembles basketball more than rugby, pits two teams of six players and five substitutes against one another in a swimming pool about 15' deep. The two sides attempt to score by putting a water polo ball filled with saltwater into a metal basket on the other team's side of the pool. To score, players can swim with or pass the ball in any direction while the other team does their best to regain control of the ball by wrestling it away or intercepting a pass. But players can only participate as long as they can hold their breath, since they only use a snorkel, mask, and swim fins. While the sport is especially popular in Europe, there are a handful of U.S. clubs, as well as some in Venezuela, Colombia, and Australia.

The men's Underwater Rugby World Championship tournament has been held every four years since 1980, with the women's tournament added in 1991. In both competitions, the Europeans dominate, but Colombia has become a strong competitor in recent years. Because the game isn't as popular here, America has struggled to become a serious force. The last time they appeared in the tournament was 2003, when a team of players was assembled from clubs across the country. For those games, the men came in tenth place, while the women fared better, finishing sixth. The next Underwater Rugby World Championship is set to play in 2011.

3. The World Cup Roller Fly

A Birmingham Roller is a breed of pigeon that has an unusual ability—it does backwards somersaults while in flight, giving the illusion that the bird is falling out of the sky. Breeders look for birds who can complete lengthy, tight rolls, and integrate them into a flock, also known as a "kit," of 15 to 20 birds. A well-trained kit will perform this somersault maneuver as a group, sticking close together and rejoining formation simultaneously. When they find a kit that works well, breeders pit them against one another in a competition called a "fly," earning style points awarded by expert judges.

The World Cup Roller Fly was started in 1999 and has been held every year since, featuring the top kits from 40 countries such as Holland, Croatia, South Africa, Australia, and the United States. After regional competitions weed out the less gymnastic birds, a single "fly-off" judge, usually last year's winner, will visit every country to determine the World Cup champion. This year, the winner of the Cup was Eric Laidler of Denmark, whose birds did a solid number of high-quality rolls to soundly take the title with a score of 873 points. But that's still short of the top score in the World Cup Roller Fly, when Holland's Heine Bijker scored an amazing 2,284.80 in the 2007 competition.

4. The Mental Calculation World Cup

If you're looking for a competition that's a bit more cerebral, there's always the Mental Calculation World Cup, held every other year in Germany since 2004. Here, some of the smartest kids from 13 countries compete in mental feats of agility, such as adding ten 10-digit numbers together, calculating as many dates as possible from the years 1600 "“ 2100 in one minute, multiplying sets of two 8-digit numbers, finding the square roots of 6-digit numbers, and six "surprise tasks" of equal mathematical difficulty.

The competition is open to anyone regardless of age, which is good because the 2010 champion, India's Priyanshi Somani, was born in 1998. She scored in the top 10 in every category except for the surprise tasks, besting her closest competitor, 16-year-old Marc Jornet Sanz of Spain, by just 4.3. points. Somani had only been training for the competition for a month, though she practiced five hours a day to get ready. If you think you have what it takes to be a world champion "“ or just want to be marveled at the site of so many numbers—check out the competition's website for sample exercises from previous tournaments.

5. The Homeless World Cup

If these other World Cups aren't striking your fancy, maybe you should try soccer again. This time it's not just for the glory and the honor, but for a good cause, too. Since 2003, the Homeless World Cup has become an annual, week-long soccer tournament with teams from 64 countries made up of people who are currently living on the street. These men and women are given the opportunity to travel to places like Milan, Melbourne, and Edinburgh to play for one of six tournament cups, including the coveted Homeless World Cup.

The matches are governed by street soccer rules, meaning they only last for 15 minutes and the penalties and free kick rules are a little different to help speed up play. Because the skill levels vary greatly—remember, these aren't pros by any means—the matches are generally high-scoring and very exciting. For example, in the 2006 Cape Town, South Africa, tournament, 300 matches were played with over 1800 goals scored, for an average of six goals per match. Compare that to the 1-0 final in the FIFA World Cup this year.

While it's great for a team to come home with the Cup raised high, the really important thing is that the experience makes a difference in peoples' lives. Research conducted after the tournaments consistently shows that players have made significant changes after the games, with most of them going on to find jobs, find a home, or get into rehab for drug or alcohol dependency. But the program doesn't just support the tournament, it also helps fund smaller soccer teams year-round in 70 countries, benefiting over 40,000 homeless players, and giving them a new lease on life.

The next Homeless World Cup is set to kick-off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on September 19.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]