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5 Jobs With Epic Championship Tournaments

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You don't need to be a superstar athlete with a million-dollar contract and a billion-dollar ego to be a champion. Here in the good ol' U.S. of A., tournaments aren't just reserved for sports; we have competitions that can turn the most menial and everyday professions, tasks, and skills into nail-biting tournaments and gripping challenges.

1. Pizza making

Dominos Pizza used to pride itself on being able to make and deliver hot pizza pies as fast as humanly possible with their famous "30 minutes or less" guarantee. The company has since realized that a speedy delivery promise doesn't matter much if the pizza tastes like piping hot cardboard, but they haven't given up on trying to create a fleet of super fast pizza makers. Every year, they've held a World's Fastest Pizza Maker competition with competitors from their global franchises to see who can put together a pie the fastest. The title is currently held by Pali Grewal of Surrey, England, who put together three large pizzas in 39.1 seconds.

2. Bagging

Putting your groceries in bags looks easy, but that's just because the best of the best can make it look easy. Every year, the best and brightest in bagging are tapped by the National Grocers' Association to compete in their annual Best Bagger Championship. The first competition was held in 1987 in Dallas, Texas, and had just two contestants from Texas and Oklahoma. These days, contestants from all 50 states converge in Las Vegas for the annual competition.

It takes a lot more than just a good time to win the big bagging trophy. According to the NGA's official coordinator manual, contestants are judged by speed, bag building technique, weight distribution, and "style, attitude and appearance." The bagger with the highest score gets $10,000, the "Grocery Bag" trophy, and "Best Bagger Golden Lane" to proudly display in their store. Admiral, Washington's Andrew Borracchini took home the latest grand prize earlier this year.

3. Firefighting

Being a firefighter requires countless hours of training and education and strict fitness discipline. Some firefighters dedicate additional time to compete in the Firefighter Combat Challenge, where the world's best and fastest firefighters compete in a grueling obstacle course that incorporates all of the skills and challenges of traditional firefighting. The course measures individual and team runs in events that include hauling and hoisting a firehose pack up a high-rise structure, victim rescues, and forcing entry into a simulated burning building.

4. Baristas

Every morning when you shuffle into your neighborhood coffee shop, you're probably too tired to notice the amount of work it takes to brew your cup of wake-up juice. It's such a delicate and complicated process that every year, the United States Barista Championship holds a heated competition to find the best Barista in the country. The competition covers three rounds: preparation, competition, and clean-up—each in an elimination-style tournament with a certain number of the highest scores moving to the next round. The baristas must make a single cup of espresso, cappuccino, and signature drink coffees for a group of specialized judges who determine the coffees' "sensory" qualities and the Barista's "technical" skill and award each player points based on their judgments. Pete Licata from Parisi Coffee of Kansas City, Missouri, won the last Barista championship in Boston.

5. School bus driving

Very few automotive competitions involve skills like parallel parking, "diminishing clearance," and a knowledge test of driver safety. The National School Transportation Association makes up for these sorely needed competitions by holding an annual safety competition for school bus drivers. Some of the world's best and brightest bus drivers travel to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to show off their safe student transportation skills in a very thorough gauntlet of driving challenges that include "elementary student loading," curb lines and stop lines, right turn events, and "railroad crossing and clearance." They also take a general knowledge and vehicle inspection test as part of the overall competition. The top 2012 drivers included Mark Koelbl from Calgary, Alberta, Antonio Perez from Encinitas, California, and Russell Altizer from Christiansburg, Virginia.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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]