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Jacob Kepler

Miko Sudo on How to Dominate at Competitive Eating

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Jacob Kepler

Congratulations to Miki, who won the women's division of the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest!

Miki Sudo is not full. In fact, she is almost never full. Perched in the back of a booth at Kahunaville, the tropical-themed Las Vegas restaurant, competitive eating’s fastest-rising female star is surrounded by crumbs and bones and gristle—evidence of a 20-minute assault on a plate of buffalo chicken wings. Wings that have been doused in mouth-scalding hot sauce, then knocked back with six sliders, each as dense as a Big Mac.

Reaching down to her plate, Sudo showcases the technique that once helped her eat 172 wings in 12 minutes. It’s instinct now: First, the thumb dives deep into the cartilage, until the skin loudly pops. Then the wing is thrust into the mouth. An indelicate, half-sucking, half-gnashing maneuver that may be described as extremely violent is performed. A second later, the bone emerges, stripped of meat.

“This is what we call a flipper, or a flat—just your ordinary wing. Relatively easy to clean,” Sudo says. “With a drum, it’s a little trickier. More of a rolling thing.” She is good at talking with her mouth full.

Nearby, three staff members have gathered, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, to watch this feat of mastication. Wiping a smear of sauce from her face, Sudo flashes them a surprisingly dainty smile. “It’s OK,” she says. “After a while, you get used to getting stared at like you’re a freak.”

Competitive eating is not a new sport. Historians of esophageal athletics trace its origins to rural state fairs, where amateurs gathered to scarf down funnel cakes or grilled corn by the pound. But recently, a small handful of leagues, including the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and All Pro Eating, have sprung up in the United States, with the aim of organizing and ranking the very best “gurgitators,” as speed eaters are sometimes called.

Among this elite group, where up-and-comers can train for years before cracking into the top tiers of the sport, the petite Sudo, with her bleach-blond hair, standing 5-feet-8-inches tall and weighing 125 pounds, is an anomaly—a circus act among circus acts. She entered her first food challenge less than three years ago on a whim. She was nervous but certain that, even if she failed, it would be something to tell her grandkids. The challenge was the Phozilla, mounted by Pho 87, a Chinatown bistro in Las Vegas popular with locals.

“I started kind of slow,” Sudo recalls, “but by the time I was down to the last few ounces, my friends were looking over at me, going, ‘Oh, my God—she’s actually going to do it.’” And she did. Thirty-three minutes and 12 seconds later, after 12 pounds of Vietnamese flat noodles and approximately one gallon of burbling liquid, she collected the $1510 prize.

Prior to that, Sudo, 28, had barely an inkling that she might be cut out for the extreme-eating lifestyle. She was born in New York but spent much of her childhood in Japan, where it is considered the height of rudeness to leave food on your plate. She learned early that if she didn’t want to embarrass her parents, it was a good policy to simply devour everything. Later, her family moved to Hawaii, and she has memories of going to fast-food joints after a long day of surfing and putting away a bag of burgers as if it were nothing. Of course, competitive eating was a different beast—consumption not for pleasure or politeness, but for the sheer athletic challenge of stuffing your body to the bursting point. But if it can be said that anyone competing in this sport is a natural, then Sudo is, to borrow an analogy from the popular baseball movie, the Robert Redford of distended abdomens.

These days, Sudo has an established routine: In the two days leading up to an event, she’ll juice all her meals, which provides the essential nutrients but clears room in her stomach. When she’s not on the road, she subsists mostly on heaping kale and avocado salads and the occasional grilled chicken breast. She works out religiously, spending an hour at the gym five or six days a week.

Sudo also has a tried-and-true game-day uniform: an oversize T-shirt and a pair of spandex bike shorts to accommodate her game-day belly, which can swell up like a water balloon. If the tournament food is spicy, she leans on chocolate milk to wash it down; if it’s sweet, she swears by coffee.

Sudo entered her first official competitive eating tournament in August 2012. The featured dish was ramen noodles—pounds of it. She was a mess—short of breath, damp-browed, on the verge of a panic attack. She knew she could eat a lot—she’d always been able to do that—but now she had a crowd watching her. There was pressure to perform, not just for a couple of friends, but for the world at large. Not to mention, she was a woman in a sport that is traditionally dominated by men.

Despite rattled nerves, she managed to consume seven pounds of ramen—approximately 50 times the amount of noodles in those microwavable cups—in half an hour, nabbing first place and $250. Two months later, she went on to mow 35 full-size ribs in five minutes for a jackpot of $1299. A quirky quasi-career was hatched.

In April 2013, Sudo signed with Major League Eating, which operates under the IFOCE umbrella. She’s spent the last couple of years touring the country on weekends while holding down a day job in marketing. Along the way, she’s racked up some incredible achievements: 71 Twinkies in six minutes; 76 tamales in 10 minutes, 109 hard-boiled eggs in eight minutes. And she has set a couple of unofficial world records: in kimchi, the fermented cabbage Korean side dish (8.5 pounds in six minutes), and in Cadbury eggs (50 in six minutes and 15 seconds). She also once ate 1.687 gallons of chili. In less than seven minutes.

Sudo claims never to count calories, but suffice to say they are in the thousands and often in the tens of thousands—numbers that can put a strain on even the most accommodating digestive tract. As Jason Fagone, the author of the 2006 book Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, puts it, ingesting such quantities is just “pain and pain. The human stomach is a medical marvel that can take an incredible amount of abuse,” he says. “But it’s still abuse.”

To spend any time with Sudo is to find yourself constantly wondering how she deals with it: How can someone so small and so seemingly normal possibly cram so much food into her esophagus?

“The best I can explain it is that it’s adrenaline,” she says. “During a competition, it just completely takes over. I try to pay attention when the emcee calls time or announces where another competitor is in terms of quantity, but other than that, I don’t see or feel anything.”

Alamy

The competitive-eating process, Sudo explains, is as much mental as physical. “I know what I’m capable of,” she says. “Sometimes you get toward the end of a competition, and you want to throw in the towel and say, ‘I’m done with this.’ But you can’t whine. You’ve got to have that drive.”

Of course, there are the occasional hiccups. A few hours after eating 147 wings, for instance, she felt a burp coming on, only to discover that her mouth was full of briny orange liquid—mutant acid reflux. At another event, an ice-cream-eating frenzy (13.5 pints in six minutes), her core temperature dropped to dangerously frigid levels, and she had to chug hot coffee to bring it back up. And then there was the time that Sudo took an overly ambitious bite of hot dog. “I thought, ‘Is it going up or down?’ It went down, but it was scary. You’ve just got to tell yourself that there are EMTs there,” she says. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

And yet, Sudo has a way of making what she does look effortless. “I remember coming back from a wing competition where I’d eaten pounds and pounds of wings,” she says. “I took a day off, and then the next day, I had this intense craving for wings—more intense than it had been before.”

Major League Eating currently ranks Sudo fourth on its leaderboard, behind three experienced male competitors. Sudo says she is happy with her status, but she clearly relishes the idea of giving “the boys” a run for their money. Given her career trajectory—and the fact that her day job increasingly takes a backseat to her professional gorging—they should probably be worried.

It’s not just glory she’s after: She knows that, if she can keep up her winning momentum, lucrative sponsorship opportunities await, such as the $100,000 Pepto-Bismol awarded top eater Joey Chestnut for endorsing its product.

When we meet, Sudo is preparing for a grilled-corn-eating contest: “I’ll probably go grab some ears tomorrow and practice my technique,” she says. (She tied for second place by eating 42 ears of corn in 12 minutes.) Then, in July, Sudo will be entered in the combined Super Bowl and World Series of extreme eating: Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest, on Coney Island.

This would be her first time at Nathan’s—remember, she’s only recently entered the ranks of top competitive eaters—but she’s optimistic. “It’s a big stage, and I think I can make my mark.” She pauses. “Look, I know this is not a traditional sport, but it is a sport, and I take it seriously. It pushes my body to the limit, and it requires focus, stamina, endurance. There’s a lot on the line. And people are counting on you to put on a show.”

She peers down at the plate. There’s one wing left. “Hey,” she says. “Are you going to eat that?”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
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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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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iStock

The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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