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10 Strange and Wonderful Boat Races

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The races are strange, but the title refers to the boats. With a little ingenuity, you can build a boat, loosely defined as a "flotation device," out of anything!

1. Beer Can Regatta

The Beer Can Regatta is an annual event at Mindil Beach organized by the Lions Club of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia. The participating boats are all made of beer or soda cans! The highlight of this year’s regatta, held Sunday, was the appearance of Extravacans, an enormous motor-powered boat constructed of 30,000 cans! A new category was created for the much bigger “superboat,” which it won as the only entry. In the main race, called The Battle of Mindil, the winner was The Flying Posties. There were other races and competitions in various categories. As you can see here, it is customary to slow down one’s competition by any means available. Photograph by Brad Fleet.

2. Homemade Watercraft Race

The New Paltz Regatta is for homemade boats of all kinds. This year's race took place on April 29th in New Paltz, New York. The annual event began in 1955 when it was launched by the the Delta Kappa Fraternity of SUNY (State University of New York). Now the race is open to anyone, and accompanies a downtown festival. The only rules are that the boats must be human-powered and homemade.

3. Minimal Regatta

The 21st Annual Schooner Wharf Bar Minimal Regatta was held in Key West over Memorial Day weekend. These boats are made of a sheet of plywood, a couple of 2x4s, and duct tape. A few other insignificant materials are allowed, but the results are always good for a laugh. Prizes were given for boats that won the race, boats that sank, creative designs, best costumes, and other categories. See pictures of the event.

4. Concrete Canoe Championship

SUN_0133

The building of canoes out of concrete began as a challenge for engineering students to design a boat to demonstrate the principles of physics. However, this exercise grew into an exercise in designing better materials; i.e. improving concrete. Intramural competitions began in the 1960s, which expanded to competitions between schools in the 1970s. The American Society of Civil Engineers sponsors a nationwide Concrete Canoe Competition. The winner of the 2012 championship was California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, for the third year in a row. Photograph by Flickr user Student Design and Experiential Learning Center.

5. Pumpkin Paddling

Damariscotta Pumpkinfest

Several communities stage autumn events in the sport of Pumpkin Paddling, in which you make a boat out of a giant pumpkin and race against other pumpkin boats. 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. Photograph by Flickr user Chiot’s Run.

6. Yorkshire Pudding Boat Race

Many years ago, Simon Thackray dreamed of floating down a river on a Yorkshire pudding. That eventually led to a 1999 event in which people built boats out of Yorkshire pudding. Now it's an annual event in Brawby, North Yorkshire, England, sponsored by The Shed. The boats are constructed of flour, water, and eggs, and given a good coat of shellac to make them fairly waterproof. Watch the boats in action in this news report.

7. Solar Splash World Championship

Teams from 15 schools competed in the Solar Splash World Championship race at George Wyth State Park in Waterloo, Iowa. Crossing the finish line first does not guarantee a win in this race: technical inspections, design, and craftsmanship are among the several parameters that count toward a win. The winning team came from Istanbul Technical University. See a promotional video about the event.

8. International Regatta of Bathtubs

La Regate des Baignoires (The International Regatta of Bathtubs) is held every August in Dinant, Belgium. The boats must contain a bathtub and no motor, but beyond that, creativity is the word. Prizes are awarded for "beauty, novelty, and representation of the town" as well as who manages to cross the finish line first. Photograph by Julien Dolhet.

9. Milk Carton Boats

The Milk, Bread, and Honey Festival is an end-of-August tradition in Jelgava, Latvia. One of the biggest events of the festival is the Milk Carton Boat Race, now in its tenth year. Last year, 36 human-powered boats made completely of milk cartons raced, and also competed for prizes in the most original and funniest crew competitions. The event aims to promote both dairy consumption and recycling.

10. Cardboard Boats

Card-Tiki 2010

The building of cardboard boats originated in 1962 at Southern Illinois University as an exercise in engineering design. The idea spread, and now many regattas are organized under the supervision of The Great Cardboard Boat Regatta. They'll even give you tips on building your own boat out of cardboard. The picture above is from a cardboard boat race in 2010 in Hollywood, Florida. Photograph by Flickr user Experiment 33.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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