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8 Alternative Fantasy Leagues

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In honor of tonight's mental_floss fantasy football league draft, here's a story on alternative fantasy leagues that first appeared last summer.

Fantasy football drafts are firing up, and workplace productivity will soon grind to a halt as half the office spends half the day managing their rosters in an attempt to get the next Steve Slaton off the waiver wire. Just because you're not a football fan doesn't mean you have to be left out of the fantasy mania, though. There are all sorts of alternative fantasy leagues you can join. Why not try one of these?

1. Fantasy Music League

If you spend more time listening to the radio than watching sports, the Fantasy Music League might be right up your alley. In this league your job is to compile a roster that has more real-life chart movement and album sales than other owners' "labels." You shell out a certain salary to sign the acts you think have the most promise, and if they out-earn your competitors, you'll earn the fantasy world's equivalent of a Grammy. The label that's at the top of the standings for this season, Jenny Baird Records, boasts a roster that includes Fall Out Boy, Daughtry, Justin Timberlake, and Fergie.

2. Fantasy Water Skiing


Water skiing is great fun, but it takes some practice before you can do it well. Why not skip all of those embarrassing spills and noses full of water by just joining a fantasy skiing league instead? Pick your professional skiers, then get points according to how many buoys your slalom skiers pass, how many points your tricksters pile up, and how far your jumpers soar. Never again will you and your buddies just have to argue in vain about which one of you is really the most hardcore water skiing fan! [Pictured: mental_floss magazine Editor-in-Chief Neely Harris doing a little reality water skiing.]

3. Fantasy Pro Wrestling

Like the violence of football but wish you had a fantasy league that stuck to a script? Try fantasy pro wrestling. Web-based E-wrestling federations allow you to draft a stable of grapplers and then receive points for their performance in the ring and appearances on broadcasts. (We're guessing the Undertaker is the fantasy wrestling equivalent of Peyton Manning: maybe not the top guy every year, but you know you're going to get consistently solid production out of him.)

4. Fantasy Bass Fishing

The only thing more exciting than watching someone else fish is beating your friends at predicting who will get the nicest bass in their livewell! offers a Fantasy Fishing Challenge that allows angling fans to create a team of their favorite pro anglers while working under the constraint of a $100 salary cap. Each angler has a set "salary" that he earns, and when you sign one to your team they score you points according to their performances in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings.

We don't know much about bass fishing, but we have to admit it would be pretty entertaining to put Michael Iaconelli on your squad and then mimic his trademark roar every time he catches a fish. How could you not want this guy on your team?

5. Fantasy Congress

Just because you prefer C-SPAN to ESPN doesn't mean you can't find a way to waste several hours on a fantasy league each week. Try out Fantasy Congress. Although the game's website is currently down, launched in 2006 to allow politics junkies to draft their favorite legislators and then rack up points according to how their Congressmen's proposed legislation fared, how often they voted, and their willingness to cross party lines to up their "Maverick Score."

6. Fantasy Bowling

You might not be able to pick up a 7-10 split, but that doesn't mean you can't destroy your friends at fantasy bowling. The Lumber Liquidators PBA Tour has its own fantasy league, and it sounds intriguingly easy to play. Your squad scores points based on how your bowlers finish in individual tournaments, so if you've got a guy who piles up strike after strike, you're going to be tough to beat. According to the league's website, the number four overall pick is a guy named Rhino Page. Do you really want to pick against a guy named Rhino?

7. Fantasy Dog Shows

fantasy-dogsIf fantasy leagues come any more adorable than this, we don't want to see them. allows you to enter a virtual simulation dog show league. You pick your breed of dog, then allocate your "funds" to help train and groom it into a champion. Your simulated dog can take on other owners' pooches in a dog-eat-dog competition to help ascertain the best way to breed a champion show dog. All of the glory, none of the fetch!

8. Fantasy Eating

humble-bobDo you watch the Nathan's hot dog eating contest each Fourth of July and find yourself feeling pangs of jealousy because you can't match the competitors' gluttony? Now you can life vicariously through them! Krystal Square Off offers fantasy eating leagues for four to seven teams that allow you score points based on how many mini hamburgers your roster can wolf down. (Hot tip: I sat next to "Humble" Bob Shoudt and his adorable daughter on their flight home from Shoudt's winning performance at the Nashville Krystal Square Off in 2006. Not only did the man look like he could down some burgers—his world record is 28 in two minutes—but he was also maybe the most doting, sweetest father I've ever seen. Pick against this guy at your own risk.)

[Image credit: Flickr user Liz is Working.]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]