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So Ba Vietnamese Restaurant via Facebook

10 Competitive Eating Challenges at Restaurants in the U.S.

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So Ba Vietnamese Restaurant via Facebook

It's an old schtick. Many restaurants around the country offer large specialty dishes with a challenge: If you finish the meal, you win a reward—a free meal or a prize, and sometimes both. The high prices of these extra-large meals are usually in line with the amount of food you get, so even if you can't finish it, you'll have leftovers to take home—that is, if you don't become sick from the attempt. Here's a sampling of the challenges that await your appetite. The cuisine may vary, but the rules are generally the same: clean your plate, stay under the time limit, and no vomiting (intentional or otherwise).

1. LOOPY’S II CARDIAC ARREST BURGER

Loopy's II via Facebook

Loopy's II Bar & Grill in Marinette, Wisconsin, offers the Cardiac Arrest burger for $35. It contains three pounds of ground beef, a pound of ham, a pound of bacon, and a half-pound of cheese topped with onions and barbecue sauce. If you finish one in an hour, you'll get a free T-shirt. Beat the record, and the food is free. If that's too much, you might want to try the Belly Buster—a two-pound burger with a pound of fries. You get 15 minutes to polish that off to win a T-shirt.

2. SEIAD CAFE PANCAKE CHALLENGE

Seiad Cafe via Instagram

The Seiad Cafe in Seiad Valley, California, makes large pancakes—13 inches in diameter and 1.25 inches thick. Finishing one pancake that size would be difficult for most of us, but if you take the Pancake Challenge, you'll be served five, with butter and syrup. If you can eat them all in less than two hours, your meal is free. Otherwise, it will cost you $13.95.

3. DOBB'S DAWG HOUSE HOT DOGS

Dobbs Dawg House via Facebook

Dobbs Dawg House in Dobbs Ferry, New York, will put nearly anything on a hot dog. There are dozens of toppings, or you can order a dog from their specialty menu, like the Trailer Park (melted cheese and crushed potato chips) or the Hawaiian Dog (bacon, teriyaki sauce, pineapple, and scallions). The Dawg House Challenge dares you to eat a dozen of those specialty hot dogs—but you can't select them. A roll of dice determines which hot dogs you get. If you finish all 12, in menu order, within 30 minutes … well, the website doesn't really promise a reward. Bragging rights?

4. ACME OYSTER HOUSE 15 DOZEN CLUB

Acme Oyster House via Instagram

Acme Oyster House in New Orleans' French Quarter (and five other locations) features the 15 Dozen Club—those who have eaten 15 dozen oysters in under an hour. There are a lot more of them than you'd think. There are rules, and the rewards are half off the price of the oysters, a T-shirt, and your name in the restaurant's hall of fame.

5. SO BA PHO KING CHALLENGE

So Ba Vietnamese Restaurant via Facebook

So Ba Vietnamese Restaurant in Atlanta has the Pho King Challenge. You pay $25 for a huge serving of pho consisting of 20 ounces of meat and 96 ounces of soup. If you finish it within an hour, it's free—plus you get a T-shirt and a gift card. However, only one person has actually done it so far. Still, that's still a lot of pho for the price, and even losers get a T-shirt.

6. IT’S ALL SO YUMMY ROCKY TOP SUNDAE

Not all food challenges are meat-based, or even entrees. It’s All So Yummy Cafe in Knoxville, Tennessee, makes their own ice cream on site. How much of it could you eat in one sitting? The Rocky Top Challenge is an ice cream sundae consisting of 16 scoops of ice cream, three brownies, three bananas, and a bunch of toppings. If you can finish it by yourself in an hour, it's free. Otherwise, it's $50.

7. JOE TACO CHUPACABRA BURRITO

Joe Taco via Facebook

Joe Taco Mexi-Cafe in Amarillo, Texas, offers the Chupacabra Challenge, an eight-pound, two-foot-long burrito with the works for $24.99. If you eat it all, by yourself, you not only get it free, but you also win a T-shirt, a place on the wall of fame, and a free meal every week for life.

8. BLACK MOUNTAIN MILL 40-INCH PIZZA

Black Mountain Mill & Pizzeria via Instagram

Black Mountain Mill and Pizzeria in Black Mountain, North Carolina, has an enormous pizza oven. Its famous $150, 40-inch pizza can feed 20–25 people. The pie can be delivered, or you can reserve the restaurant for a party with one pizza for all your friends. The 40-inch Pizza Challenge is one you don't have to do alone: Two people get an hour to polish off a two-topping monster pie, without leaving the table. (A common rule—no bathroom visits to "make room.") If you succeed, your duo wins $1000.

9. CUBAVANA'S CUBAN MONSTER CHALLENGE

Cubavana Cuban Restaurant and Cafe in Cutler Bay, Florida (South Miami), offers the Cuban Monster Challenge. Order a 35-inch Cuban Monster Sandwich for $35. If you can finish it in 45 minutes, you'll receive $25 cash, a free meal, and a T-shirt. The restaurant will also donate $40 to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in your name. If you don't finish it, you'll have delicious Cuban sandwich leftovers for the next few meals.

10. STUFFY'S II BEAR ROLL

Stuffy's II Restaurant in Longview, Washington, serves a full menu, but it's their enormous cinnamon rolls that made them famous. They have a quartet of food challenges: the Party Burger with five pounds of meat; the Almost a Dozen Egg Omelet; the Bear Roll (a 10.5-pound cinnamon roll, scarfed down in the above video), or seven pounds of whatever food you want. Prices, rules, and prizes vary.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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May 23, 2017
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