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Five Hobbies You Never Considered

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Everyone has a hobby, whether it’s something traditional, like collecting stamps, or modern, such as playing online games. I grow flowers and vegetables and collect antiques, and when I retire I will return to quilting. But there’s no limit to the different activities that people love and spend their free time doing. Here are a few hobbies that you don’t hear about often -if ever!

1. Conlanging

A conlanger is a person who creates new languages. It is not a simple hobby. The more you study the process, the more you become aware of the importance of internally consistent rules, the way people communicate, and the beauty of existing languages with all their flaws. The Language Creation Society is a great resource for both beginning and experienced conlangers. We recently linked a story about one of the Society’s founders, David J. Peterson, who was hired by HBO to create the languages used in the series Game of Thrones. Jobs like that are few and far between, so conlangers devote themselves to language creation as a challenge that they enjoy. Peterson has a list of resources for conlangers, in case you’d like to try it yourself.

2. Highpointing

Photograph by Denali National Park and Preserve.

Highpointing is a sport, or hobby, in which people aim to climb the highest point in different geographical areas, like the highest point in all 50 states, or the highest points in one’s home country or continent, or even the world. Highpointers is a club for Americans who wish to scale the highest peaks of all 50 states. There’s also the County Highpointers, for people whose goal is to scale the highest peak in all 3,142 U.S. counties. Thomas Harper recently explored some peaks with other highpointers and reported his experiences at Atlas Obscura

Photograph by Fredlyfish4.

The highest of the state’s highest peaks is Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, in Alaska, which is 20,320 feet. Some climbers forego that one, and aim for covering the 48 contiguous states. In contrast, it’s not so hard to visit Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas. We all know that Kansas is flatter than a pancake, and Mount Sunflower, in the western edge of the state, is close to the lowest point in Colorado. You’ll find a list of the highest points in each state here

3. Body Recovery

Photograph from Ralston and Associates.

Gene and Sandra Ralston have a hobby that has become a mission: they find drowning victims. Gene Ralston is an environmental consultant in Idaho. His business, Ralston & Associates, provides inspections and evaluations for projects involving water, with services ranging from hydrographic surveys to species inventory. In his work, Ralston uses equipment called the Side scan sonar system. Ralston recognized that the system would be useful in underwater search and recovery operations. In 1983, Ralston helped find the body of a drowning victim, and since then has found over 100 bodies, free of charge.

Local law enforcement agencies search for missing people underwater, but most do not have the specialized equipment nor the expertise that Ralston has. He and his wife Sandra help in searches wherever they are requested. They invested in an RV and now crisscross the country with their boat and equipment right behind them. Sometimes their find can close a recent case, while sometimes bodies have been missing for years. Ralston was quoted after one case,

“There's no feeling like being able to walk up to the boat ramp to tell mom and dad, widow, husband, whatever, a parent, that you're bringing their child home,” he said. “When everyone else has given up.”

4. Creative Dog Grooming

Photograph from The NAPCG at Facebook.

Dog grooming is a profession, as dog owners need their pooches cleaned, clipped, and maybe coiffured. But like many professions, a little competition among groomers got the creative juices flowing, and turned dog grooming into an art form, with dogs as the medium. Creative dog grooming is a hobby of professional dog groomers in which they can show off their skills in ways no local client would ever think to ask for. Contests such as Intergroom and Groom Expo attract competitive groomers from all over. Learn more about creative grooming from the National Association of Professional Creative Groomers. See a gallery of creatively-groomed dogs at Gothamist.

5. Hikaru Dorodango

Photograph by Flickr user DaJJHman.

Dorodango is a Japanese word meaning mud balls, particularly the kind that school children create. If you polish that mud ball to a sheen, it’s called hikaru dorodango, or shiny ball of mud. If you use the correct technique, you can make an almost perfect sphere and polish it until it shines. However, the mud ball is still fragile, so the entire process is a delicate art form. The practice was dying out until Professor Fumio Kayo of the Kyoto University of Education took an interest in 1999 and developed a technique to teach children how to make their balls shiny. Try it yourself, with illustrated instructions. You can see some fine examples of the art here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.