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The Late Movies: 11 Unusual Competitive Eating Contests

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Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest was held over Fourth of July weekend on Coney Island. This year, long-time title-holder Joey Chestnut consumed 54 hot dogs and buns, winning the competition. Although this eating contest is one of the most famous in the world, there are many other opportunities to see people shove food in their faces as quickly as possible. Here are 11 unusual competitive eating contests.

Matzoh Balls

Kenny & Ziggy's World Matzoh Ball Eating Championship challenges competitors to down as many of the Jewish staple as possible. Winners receive $1500.

Gyros

Niko Niko's World Gyro Eating Championship in Houston, held in conjunction with the city's Festival of Greece, gives eaters 10 minutes to ingest as many gyros as possible.

Ramen

To celebrate their restaurant's eighth anniversary, the owners of Kinsahi Japanese Restaurant held a ramen-eating contest. The competition was divided in a prelimary round and a final contest to determine the fastest eater.

Raw Onions

In Maui, competitors chow down on raw onions. Believed to be the sweetest onions in the world, Maui Kula onions are the centerpiece of a yearly festival, which includes games, pairing dinners and chef demonstrations.

Cupcakes

Competitive cupcake eaters are popular on YouTube, but in this video, Xin employs the "dunking-it-in-water-first" technique to take the win.

Twinkies

These participants don't look like they're going to be competing professionally any time soon, but they sure did down more Twinkies in one sitting than I could ever fathom.

Ribs

At the Madison Bicentennial Rib-Eating Contest, several community officials, including the mayor, vie for the wining title in a competition to see who can finish their plate of ribs fastest.

Wings

Each year, on the Friday before the Super Bowl, Philadelphia hosts the WingBowl. Thousands of people fill a stadium. At last year's event, Jersey Shore's Snooki showed up for the festivities.

Burritos

Hosted by Moe's Southwest Grille, this burrito-eating contest forces contestants to down four full-size burritos.

Asparagus

In Stockton, California, competitors attempt to eat the most deep-fried asparagus in this yearly contest.

Thanksgiving turkies

Famed female eater, Sonya Thomas smokes the competition at the Thanksgiving Turkey Invitational. In this video, she eats a 10-pound turkey in 12 minutes.

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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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May 23, 2017
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