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Hannah Keyser

Behind the Scenes at the Ostrich Derby and Cameltonian

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Hannah Keyser

The whole race only took about about 20 seconds. And that was for the camels. The ostrich-drawn chariots took even less time, but it's hard to tell for sure without a really discernible start or finish line. In both races, however, all of the participating animals ran—and ran in the correct direction—and because of that, the Meadowlands third annual Ostrich Derby and Cameltonian was a success.

"Come Saturday, three of them might decide to run the right direction and one might decide to run in circles," animal handler Monte McClurg said last Thursday about the camels, who can reach speeds of 35 mph.

As for the ostriches? “These ostriches are about as trained as an ostrich can be," McClurg said. Which appears to be a low standard for comparison. So the forward motion Saturday evening was something to celebrate; but McClurg understands that even if chaos had ensued, well, that would be its own kind of success.

“We’re here to entertain people, so if it takes us an extra three seconds to get across the end of the track, that’s probably for the better," he said. "That’s three more seconds of entertainment.”

The races, which you couldn't bet on (at least, not "officially," I was told), took place in between the regular harness races Saturday evening at the New Jersey sports complex just outside Manhattan. It was one of two races for the four camels and three ostriches this past weekend, but don't worry about a rough life on the road for these ungulates and ratites.

Each of the 70-or-so camels raised and trained on Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Nickerson, KS—which is also responsible for the ostriches—only travel to three or four races each year, spending most of their time back at farm. (Although, in December, they do take some time to work the nativity circuit.)

This race featured Snickers, Tantor, and two of their barnmates, although all four were re-branded with more pun-heavy names for the programs. The pack ranged in age from 5 to 10 years old, which is young for camels, who can live up to 40. And each, according to McClurg, has his own gregarious personality.

“Next time someone tells you how mean camels are, you can correct them," he said as Snickers went in for a kiss.

And it's true—the animals were all nuzzles and curiosity on the drizzly media morning. McClurg went so far in his praise of Snickers, who he described as an "honest camel," to say that, "If he was a human, I’d be proud to have him as a son."

The ostriches, however, were unable to join us on the concourse out of concern for their unpredictability. Brains the size of your thumbnail make it tricky to train them to do much besides run relatively straight. And although they can be ridden, at the Meadowlands, the towering flightless birds pulled brightly colored chariots which can be disengaged from their harnesses with a parachute-style quick release at speeds up to 25 mph.

Despite disparaging reports, the three ostriches seemed friendly enough back in the barn, where they shared a single stall. Their wide eyes and permanently down-turned beaks gave them an unshakable disapproving look, but they meandered unafraid towards the crowd of reporters. We were quickly told, however, not to read too much into their apparent interest in us: Handler A.J. Augusto reasoned that they must think the camera clicks were the sound of another ostrich munching some hidden, desirable food.

Check out the videos below for a taste of ostrich and camel racing and keep an eye out—they might be coming to a racetrack near you soon.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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