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11 Frosty Facts About the Iditarod

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Wikimedia Commons

The Iditarod has been called "the last great race on Earth"— a long, blistering competition across nearly 1000 miles of Alaskan wilderness. Though the traditional starting line in Anchorage was used on Saturday for a ceremonial kick-off, the race itself began on Monday, March 6, in Fairbanks, about six hours north—marking the second time in three years that the conditions in Anchorage were too mild for a proper send-off. While this year's 72 mushers make their way to Nome, here are 11 amazing facts about the brutal and trying, but always exciting, Iditarod.

1. RACE TIMES HAVE IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY SINCE IT STARTED.

The first Iditarod took place in 1973, and took about 20 days to complete; currently, it takes about 10 days. Last year's winner, four-time champ Dallas Seavey, set a new record at 8 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, and 16 seconds. The last place time was 32 days in the beginning, and now it’s about 13 days.

2. SLED DOGS NEED 10-12,000 CALORIES A DAY.

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Each sled is pulled by a team of 16 dogs, and they need to keep on eating. On the trail they get frozen snacks like chunks of meat, fish, or soaked dog food. When they stop at checkpoints they get a warm meal, maybe a nice a slurry of beef, Arctic char, vitamin supplements, and kibble mixed with water and chicken fat—cooked in a bucket camp stove that doubles as the driver’s seat on the sled.

3. THE DOGS WEAR BOOTIES.

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It’s cold out there on the trail, but that’s not why the dogs have to keep their feet covered. Their fur and efficient circulatory systems keep them warm enough. But the ice, snow, and rocky terrain is hard on their foot pads, so they have to be protected. Mushers usually make their dogs’ booties themselves, and they are required by the rules of the race to have at least eight extra per dog on the sled. "This is easily the most important piece of dog gear I use," 2012's Rookie of the Year Brent Sass told Outside, adding that he actually packs 3000 extra booties for his dogs. "My dogs will race over bare ground, ice, fresh snow, and open water—and booties are the best way to prevent injury."

4. THERE'S A JAMAICAN DOG SLED TEAM.

Inspired by the Olympic Jamaican bobsled team, a Caribbean tour operator started a Jamaican dog sled team to compete in various races. (It was sponsored by Jimmy Buffett.) In 2010, team member Newton Marshall became the first Jamaican to compete in the Iditarod—he competes independently as Mushin’ Mon Newton. In 2014, he made Iditarod news when he helped rescue another musher who had broken his ankle chasing a loose dog. That musher happened to be the subject of our next fact…

5. DOGS CAN BE SAVED WITH MOUTH-TO-SNOUT RESUSCITATION.

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The musher Marshall saved, Scott Janssen, a funeral home proprietor known as the Mushing Mortician (and who is currently racing this year), made news in the 2012 Iditarod when he saved one of his dogs who had collapsed on the trail by performing mouth-to-snout resuscitation. That husky’s name? Marshall. Coincidence? Or mysterious karma on the trail?

6. IT'S A FAMILY AFFAIR.

There’s quite a bit of friendly family rivalry in the Iditarod. Last year's winner, Dallas Seavey, became the youngest Iditarod winner at 25 on his first win in 2012. The next year, his father, Mitch, became the oldest winner at 53. Mitch’s father, Dan, had finished third in the original 1973 race. Other Iditarod families include Anna and Kristy Berington, twin sisters who have competed six and eight years each, respectively, and the Mackeys—father Dick and sons Rick and Lance, who each won the race on their sixth attempt, each while wearing number 13 (Lance went on a four-year winning streak from 2007-2010). Dick's two other sons, Bill and Jason have also competed, with Jason currently out on the trail.

7. THE FINISH LINE IS A GOOD PLACE TO BECOME A CITIZEN.

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Martin Buser moved to Alaska from his native Switzerland in 1979. He ran his first Iditarod in 1980 and holds the record for finishing the race the most times at 33 (and he's competing this year as well). He also held the previous record for fastest finish time with his 2002 win. Right after that win, he became a U.S. citizen in a naturalization ceremony held under the monument arch that marks the finish line.

8. SLED DOGS HAVE TO STUDY THEIR VOCABULARY.

Part of sled dog training involves teaching them a set of standard commands.

Hike! (Let’s go! Get moving!)
Haw! (Turn left!)
Gee! (Turn right)
On by! (Pass another team! or Pay that distraction no mind!)
Easy! (Slow down!)
Whoa! (Stop!)

9. THE RACE IS NAMED FOR A GHOST TOWN.

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Or at least for the name of the route than once carried mail, supplies, and gold prospectors to the town of Iditarod. The town was named for the Iditarod River and was once flush with action from an early 20th-century gold rush. But after the gold ran out in the 1930s, everyone left. All that's left of it are a few abandoned shelters and a rusty old bank vault.

10. THE DISTANCE VARIES.

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The race course is about 1000 miles, but it can vary depending on snow, ice, and other terrain conditions. Also, the race alternates between a northern course and a southern course every year. This way, more of the small towns in the middle of the state get to participate in the action and benefit from a bump in visitors. Officially though, they say the race is 1049 miles, in honor of Alaska being the 49th state to enter the union.

11. THE LAST PLACE FINISHER GETS A SPECIAL PRIZE.

It’s a race tradition to light a lantern at the finish line in Nome when the race begins and leave it lit as long as there are still mushers out on the trail. It’s a nod to the old custom of the "widow’s lamp," which was a safety measure to keep track of when sled drivers were out on the trail and whether they had reached their destination or not. Some sled races started handing out lanterns to the last place finisher as a joke, but now the "red lantern" is an official prize to bear proudly. When it comes to the Iditarod—over 1000 miles of snow, ice, frostbite, sleeplessness, danger, and mud—just finishing is no small achievement.

Follow the action at Iditarod.com.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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