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11 Frosty Facts About the Iditarod

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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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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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