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The Gentleman Adventurers Who Invented Alternative Sports

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The next time you go bungee jumping, thank a group of Oxford University students for the experience. If it wasn’t for them, the activity probably wouldn’t exist, and the entire world of extreme sports as we know it today might look very different. 

These student athletes were more inspired by Fellini than fitness, and “training” usually involved little more than buying the champagne. Yet during their heyday, the group—known as the Oxford Club for Dangerous Sports—invented bungee jumping, advanced the sport of hang-gliding, pioneered a bizarre form of skiing, recruited one of the members of Monty Python, and generally made a very entertaining spectacle of themselves. 

Their story began in 1977 in Klosters, Switzerland, where two vacationing Oxford graduate students, David Kirke and Edward Hulton, discovered hang-gliding, then recently imported from California. The pair fell in love with its boundary-pushing yet amateur nature, which allowed for a do-it-yourself thrill that seemed in marked contrast to the rule-bound sports they knew.

“What we hated was the way that formal sports had all these little, important bourgeois instructors saying, ‘You’ve got to get through five-part exams to do this,” Kirke later explained to Vanity Fair. After a few runs in Klosters, and a few drinks, Kirke and friends dreamt up the idea of a Dangerous Sports Club at Oxford—devoted to the silly, the daring, and anything that would annoy bureaucrats. The title was meant to be cheeky: the group wasn’t entirely organized enough to be called a club, and the “sports” they engaged in were more like stunts. 

Club membership consisted of Kirke and a few friends, plus whoever showed up their events. During their activities, the men (they were usually men) dressed in top hats and tails, enjoyed free-flowing champagne, and displayed an almost total disregard for danger. Alongside further hang-gliding experiments—one expedition departed from Mount Kilimanjaro, another from Mount Olympus—other early exploits involved speeding down steep hills in shopping carts, skateboarding alongside the running of the bulls in Spain, and staging a cocktail party on a tiny islet 300 miles off the coast of Scotland. (The latter event turned perilous when the boat headed toward the party’s location sprung a leak, but club members plugged it with the cork from a champagne bottle.)

One of the club’s more memorable activities was a type of surrealist ski race, which they pioneered at St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1983. The fun involved finding or making large objects not normally seen on ski slopes (crew boats, dining tables), attaching skis to them, and then taking off down the hills. During the three years in which the races were held, the contraptions sent down the slopes grew progressively larger and more bizarre—from ironing boards, horse troughs, sofas, carriages, and wheelchairs to small planes, a 4-poster bed, and a grand piano. One competitor built a small desert island, complete with palm tree and shark. “It was impossible to ski,” he told a documentary interviewer, “you just had to sit on it and hope.” 

Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, who participated in several of the club’s events, was going to go down the slopes in 1985 dressed in scrubs, accompanying an operating table covered by a bloody sheet. But he decided to look for a “safer event.” Which was racing down on a Venetian gondola on skis.

Sadly, surreal skiing ended when one member, Lord Alexander Rufus-Isaacs, attempted to send a London double decker down the slopes. That’s when management finally balked.

The group’s most lasting achievement is the sport they pioneered: bungee jumping. As member Chris Baker describes it, he had been using bungee cords to tie hang gliders to his car. One day, he found himself thinking about a film he’d seen in school on the vine jumpers of the South Pacific. (During the harvest ritual of nagol on Pentecost Island, part of Vanuatu, men plunge off wooden towers with vines tied to their ankles. Unlike bungee jumpers, they actually hit the ground.) Baker happened to live close to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, which rises almost 250 feet above the water. He came up with the idea of jumping off the bridge with the bungee cords tired to his ankles, just as the vines had been tied to the men in Vanuatu.

Baker and friends tested the plan with computer simulations (but not weights, which were deemed unsportsmanlike), then sent out invitations for an all-night party culminating in a jump at dawn on April 1, 1979. They didn’t make it quite at dawn, but otherwise the jump worked as planned—to the surprise of everybody involved. Video footage of the event shows Kirke leaping off the bridge with the champagne bottle still in his hand.

Several members were immediately arrested, but released shortly thereafter after promising to never do it again. They lied. The group followed the first jump with one off the Golden Bridge, and later one off the then-highest bridge in the world, Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge (filmed for the TV program That’s Incredible!). By 1982, they were jumping from mobile cranes and hot air balloons around England. Eventually, the craze caught on around the world. 

Club members also enjoyed hang-gliding from active volcanoes, early BASE jumping, and an early version of zorbing, with a 23 meter diameter plastic ball with two deck chairs inside.

Like many ridiculous European exports, the club made it big in Japan. In the late 1980s, a television company filmed them for a special entitled something like “Extraordinary Freaks of the West.” For the Japanese, Kirke and other members catapulted themselves into an Irish river and tumbled over waterfalls in a mattress. The activities apparently pleased TV audiences, but they came with a price: In one stunt, Kirke was sent off a cliff by a device normally used to launch drones from aircraft carriers, and the G-force broke his spine in two places. He survived, but has dealt with ongoing back issues.

Kirke has faced other troubles in well, including time in jail for credit card fraud. More seriously, in 2002 a student at Oxford was killed after being flung from a reproduction of a medieval trebuchet operated by two former DSC members, who were then running something called the Oxford Stunt Factory. (The extent to which the club continues is a little unclear, although many former members say it fizzled out by the late 1980s.) The pair were charged with manslaughter, although the charges were later dismissed

Overall, by the late 1990s, the club carried out more than 80 projects in more than 40 countries, raised hundreds of thousands of British pounds for charity, and left an indelible footprint on the world of sports. "People may think we are mad,” Kirke has said. "We think they are insane to endure such humdrum lives."

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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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