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10 More Odd and Unusual Boating Events

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Just a couple of days ago, we had 10 Strange and Wonderful Boat Races. Readers suggested other boat races, hinting that a list of ten was not enough. So here are ten more events in which you can enjoy some awesome and unusual boating, floating, and racing.

1. Aquatennial Milk Carton Boat Races

The Minneapolis Aquatennial festival features Milk Carton Boat Races which were held last weekend. Entrants who build boats floating on milk cartons can compete in different races and events, including one in which boats are decorated as cows! The festival itself continues through this Saturday. Photograph by gomattolson via Wikipedia.

2. Kaljakellunta

Kaljakellunta is a Finnish term that sort of translates to Beer-Floating. Held annually in waterways near Helsinki since 1997, it is essentially a party held on rubber rafts or other floats. Kaljakellunta 2012 will be on July 28th. If you are in Finland, or can read Finnish, you'll find more information at Facebook. A more comprehensive video that is a little NSFW can be found here.

3. Red Green Regatta

The Red Green Regatta in Fairbanks, Alaska, is not a race, but a showcase for boats made of duct tape. The 2012 race is this Sunday! There's still time to register, but do you have time to make a boat and get to Fairbanks? The rules for boat building are quite lenient; all that is required is that you use a minimum of one roll of duct tape. Prizes are awarded for creativity and construction, seaworthiness, and how the craft incorporates the Red Green theme. Red Green himself will be on hand to help select winners. Photograph by Andrew and Jennifer.

4. Seattle Seafair Milk Carton Derby


The Denny's Seafair Milk Carton Derby was held last weekend as part of Seattle's Seafair, which continues through July 29th. Although all boats are made of milk cartons, different sizes, speeds, and classes have their own races, as well as a special class of races for "entries where design took precedence over speed." See pictures from this year's derby here. Photograph by Flickr user scalpel3000.

5. Henley-on-Todd Regatta

The Henley-on-Todd Regatta will take place in Alice Springs, Australia, on Saturday, August 18th. This is a boat race without water, held on the dry Todd River bed. The annual event began in 1962 as a parody of the Henley-on-Thames race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, with the difference being that this race is in the desert. Having no body of water, the boats are bottomless so the sailors can race with their feet. There are competitions in many classes, for different size crews and even a motorized event, which is limited to members of the Rotary Clubs who sponsor the regatta. Photograph from Henley-on-Todd Inc.

6. Anything That Floats Regatta

The Anything That Floats Regatta takes place annually in Key Largo, Florida. This year's event is scheduled for August 17th and 18th. Build a boat out of anything and compete for the fastest in the races, best decorated boat, or best looking crew categories. Last year, there were also winners for categories such as most people on a boat without sinking and best hard luck story.

7. Viking Long Boat Races

The World Championship Viking Long Boat Races take place in Peel Harbour on the Isle of Man. This event has been held since 1963, and the 2012 event is this Saturday, July 21st. Seventy teams of ten people are expected, each heaving 11-foot-long oars in the manner of Vikings. This is one boat race in which the participants do not build their own boats; four existing Viking boats are used. Each weighs around 2.5 tonnes! Pictured is Team CabCard, which won the Best Newcomer award in 2010.

8. Redneck Regatta

The BAGM Redneck Regatta is part of the Celebrate De Pere festival in De Pere, Wisconsin in May. The boats are human powered and homemade, of very specific materials:

Allowable building materials include cardboard (including “sonotubes”), wood glue, duct tape or packing tape and spray paint. Nothing else!

Photograph by Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette.

9. De Soto Bottle Boat Regatta

The 2012 De Soto Bottle Boat Regatta in Bradenton, Florida, took place on April 14th. The annual event is sponsored by the Hernando DeSoto Historical Society. The boats are homemade and depend on plastic bottles for floatability. Prizes are awarded for the fastest to paddle across the finish line and for style, construction, and crew costumes. See more photographs of this year's race at the Bradenton Herald. Image from YouTube.

10. Chocolate Boat Regatta

In 2010, French master chocolatier Georges Larnicol made a boat out of chocolate as a publicity stunt. A year later, he went one better by staging a chocolate regatta, featuring seven chocolate boats, all made by his company. Three of the boats sank, but the crowd enjoyed it and the headlines were worth it. This is one regatta that is not likely to become an annual event.

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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]