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10 Sports Involving Pumpkins

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When you think of pumpkin competitions, the first thing that comes to mind is the race to grow the world's largest pumpkin. But if you can't spend all year nursing your garden fruits, there are plenty of other fun things to do with a pumpkin. And some people take those things very seriously.

1. Pumpkin Paddling

A sport that is growing in popularity is Pumpkin Paddling, in which you make a boat out of a giant pumpkin and race against other pumpkin boats. Honestly, they do this in several places. One of the biggest competitions is the Damariscotta Pumpkinfest & Regatta in Damariscotta, Maine. The pumpkinfest has contests for growing, decorating, and carving pumpkins, but the regatta is the biggest draw. Watch a video to see how it's done.

2. Pumpkin Bowling

The sport of pumpkin bowling has yet to reach the level of regional and national competitions. Rather, it is limited to local and even party-level games because the rules vary from region to region. In Minnesota, the Downing Pumpkin Farm has an annual competition on New Year's Day.

3. Punkin Chunkin

Punkin' Chunkin' 2010 - Air Cannons

It takes some real power to throw a pumpkin. It helps if you build a machine to do it! There are many community and regional pumpkin-throwing competitions, but the biggest of all is the World Championship Punkin Chunkin held the first weekend in November in a big field near Seaford, Delaware. Chunk a pumpkin as far as you can with a compressed air cannon, trebuchet, catapult, centrifugal engine, or by human power alone. Each gadget has a separate competition. If you can't make it, the best of the best will be broadcast on nationwide TV Thanksgiving evening. Here you see some of the homemade air cannons. Image by Flickr user autiscy.

4. Underwater Pumpkin Carving

Catalina Halloween Diving 2009 - 23

You have your everyday pumpkin carving competitions all over the country, and then you have underwater pumpkin carving. It takes longer to carve a pumpkin underwater, but you can leave your mess behind for the fish. Also, pumpkins tend to float before they are pierced, so you may have to practice wrestling them down to the carving area.
Image by Flickr user David Galvan .

Pumpkin Drops

When you Google the term Pumpkin Drop, you will get either recipes (pumpkin drop cookies) or competitions in which people drop pumpkins. But there are many different ways to win a pumpkin drop.

5. Drop for Preservation

The Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at West Virginia University stages an annual pumpkin drop. The goal in this drop is to design packaging for the pumpkin that will keep it from breaking at the end of an 11-story fall. And it's a difficult challenge: materials are limited to things that are safe for the surrounding crowd, and must be biodegradable and able to be cleaned up within 30 seconds of the drop!

6. Drop for a Pretty Splat

In contrast, the whole point of dropping pumpkins for Boston University's physics department is to make an aesthetically pleasing mess. Students fill their pumpkins with paint or other materials (whipped cream is popular) to make a nice colorful splat on the sidewalk underneath the 70-foot drop. Watch the process on video.

7. Drop for Splat Distance

The University of California at San Diego (UCSD) drops a huge pumpkin off the tallest building on campus every October to see how big a splat they can make. In 1995, pieces flew over an area 100 feet wide! But that's not all -the pumpkin is first filled with candy, so after the drop students can sort through pumpkin guts on the ground for treats.

8. Drop for Charity

Farms that stage fall festivals have various forms of pumpkin drops as well. HeeHaw Farms in Pleasant Grove, Utah drops pumpkins to benefit the March of Dimes. Purchase a pumpkin and use it for a target drop. Pumpkins over 500 pounds are dropped from a crane onto a car!

9. Drop for the Ride

The Great Texas Pumpkin Drop Festival takes place in San Marcos, Texas. It's a fundraising event in which participants pay to go up a tethered hot air balloon and drop pumpkins from high in the air just to watch them splat!

10. Aerial Pumpkin Bombing

The St. Charles Flying Service in Missouri hosts an annual pumpkin drop from airplanes! The goal in this drop is to hit a target on the ground from a plane. The video shown here is from a similar drop at Antique Airfield in Blakesburg, Iowa in 2009. They staged a pumpkin drop for 14 years, but then discontinued the event.

Main image by Flickr user Chiot's Run. This story originally appeared in 2011.

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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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