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Let's Get Neurological: 10 Contests for Mental Athletes

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Flickr: TrishaLyn

Maybe your days of physical athletic prowess are far behind you. But brains can grow more efficient over time if properly worked out. Fortunately, there are many competitions out there for those of us who have to start choosing brains over brawn. Here are a few of them—and some suggestions for how you can train with products from the floss store.

1. THE MEMORIAD

Held every four years (yes, just like the Olympics!), the Memoriad is a global memory, mental calculation, and photographic-reading competition. Categories of competition include memorizing the order of a deck of cards, adding one- to four-digit numbers seen flashing on a screen, and calculating the correct day of the week for randomly selected calendar dates between the years 1600 and 2099. And no, you may not take out your graphing calculators … or your iPhones. Gold, silver, and bronze medals are awarded in each category.

This unique Frank Lloyd Wright Designs Memory Game could bring some fun into your memory training regimen.

2. LOLLAPUZZOOLA

Though possibly more subdued than the Lollapalooza music festival, Lollapuzzoola is a summertime crossword puzzle contest held in New York City and the second-largest contest of its kind in the United States. Competitors are broken into four divisions (two based on skill, one for rookies, and one for pairs), and are scored on both speed and accuracy. But watch out, there’s a 10-point deduction for each wrong letter. So maybe you do this one in pencil, huh?

Train for this one with Mental Floss's own book of crossword puzzles.

3. THE MOMATH MASTERS TOURNAMENT

The National Museum of Mathematics in New York City hosted the MoMath Masters Tournament this past spring. The night consisted of cocktails and challenges from three categories: Gardner Greats (questions selected from the work of math writer Martin Gardner), Math Pulse, and Math Classics. Question one:

Lewis Carroll’s Alice is wandering around the Forest of Forgetfulness, where she is unable to remember the day of the week. In the forest she meets the Lion and the Unicorn. The Lion lies on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the Unicorn lies on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. At all other times both animals tell the truth. "Yesterday was one of my lying days," says the Lion. "Yesterday was one of my lying days too," says the Unicorn. Alice is able to deduce the day of the week. What is it?

If you can puzzle this out, you’re better than I. I’d like to hear more about the cocktails.

In Einstein's Riddlephilosopher and mathematician Jeremy Stangroom has collected some of the classic riddles and paradoxes from throughout history and brought them together in a fun and visually-appealing way—we really like this book.

4. THE PUN-OFFS

The O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships have been held every year since 1977 in Austin, Texas (for those wondering, O. Henry was the iconic short story writer who gave us "The Gift of the Magi"). Competitors face off in two categories: Punniest of Show, where they have 90 seconds to recite prepared material, and Punslingers, a “shootout” between two players that ends when one competitor runs out of puns. There is a reason why pun and fun rhyme.

Train your punny bone—and learn more on the history of punning and how the author took home the Punslingers trophy in 1995—in The Pun Also Rises.

5. THE DECAMENTATHLON

Created for the Mind Sports Olympiad, the Decamentathlon is the less physically challenging version of the decathlon—you know, the Olympic event Bruce Jenner won in 1976. While mastering the Decamentathlon will not put your face on a Wheaties box and probably won’t score your family your own reality TV show, it will mean you’re pretty darn smart. It’s a four-hour test broken into 10 “events": Backgammon, Chess, creative thinking, Checkers/Draughts, Go, intelligence, Mastermind, memory, mental calculations, and Othello, or Reversi. Mind Sports Olympiad die-hards can also compete in the Pentamind, which includes half the amount of events, but categories can change from year to year.  

Sounds like your Whole Brain ought to be optimized to compete in this one—try training with the Whole Brain Game.

6. THE USA MEMORY CHAMPIONSHIP

This competition was created in 1997 by a businessman who wanted to prove to people that the brain can get stronger with age, and competitors in the USA Memory Championship fashion themselves as “Mental Athletes.” Events include the memorization of names and faces, a shuffled deck of cards, an unpublished poem, and a list of 200 words. Hopefully the event organizers keep enough Gatorade on the sidelines.

Journalist Joshua Foer spent a year training his memory as research for his book, Moonwalking With Einstein, and in preparation for this event.

7. THE WORLD PUZZLE CHAMPIONSHIPS

This three-day international competition consists of both team and individual challenges. Each participant completes a 13-part puzzle booklet in the first two days, and the leaders face off in the individual playoffs on day three. The World Puzzle Federation, which hosts this event, also runs the World Sudoku Championships.

Get your puzzle-solving up-to-speed with Mental Floss's Book of Logic Puzzles.

8. THE MENTAL CALCULATION WORLD CUP

Every two years, mathematicians gather to show off their skills in problems based on basic arithmetic principles. The 2012 Cup was held in Germany, and winner Naofumi Ogasawara of Japan broke a world record by adding 10 sets of 10 10-digit numbers in three minutes and 11 seconds. The Usain Bolt of math, ladies and gentlemen.

Prep for this one by honing your mental math skills with the book Secrets of Mental Math.

9. THE NATIONAL ADULT SPELLING BEE

As the Scripps National Spelling Bee continues to build on its reputation as the country’s most-watched mental sport, adults are getting in on the action: The National Adult Spelling Bee has been held in Long Beach, Calif., since 2006. After four years of competing, a French professor from Alabama took the 2013 competition by correctly spelling “quincunx.” The competitor in second place got caught up on “tourbillion” in the 26th round.  

Hmmmm, don't know how exactly to help you with this one—maybe you should read a lot more. Try Mental Floss: The Book—Only The Greatest Lists In The History of Listory.

10. PUZZLEHUNTS

In this scavenger hunt for puzzle lovers, each team has to first find puzzles that are hidden in secret locations, and then solve them. Each solved puzzle usually leads to the next. Puzzlehunts are fairly popular among the techy-crowd, and are held annually at institutions like MIT, which hosted its longest one (73 hours and more than 150 puzzles!) this year. Puzzles can include mind-stumpers such as anagrams and cryptograms, but really, anything goes. Some puzzles in the MIT event may not even have an answer, but organizers promise this is rare. Just keeping everyone on their toes. 

Start your brain training with a good baseline measurement using this IQ Test Kit. Prepare with the included practice question, take the test, and then mail in your answers in the included postage-paid envelope—and receive your personalized certificate and results within 28 days!

Primary image courtesy of Flickr user TrishaLyn.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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