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6 Sports Too Deadly for Gym Class

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Dodgeball takes a lot of knocks in gym class for being dangerous, but it's got nowhere near the death rate of these sports. Here's a look at six sports you wouldn't want your kids playing in gym class.

1. Pakistani Kite Flying

Every year Pakistanis celebrate the beginning of spring with Basant, a joyous festival with music, horses, flowers and kites. Well, actually, scratch the kites; they were banned by the Pakistani government. The tradition of flying kites competitively on Basant was resulting in a surprising number of deaths. Over the course of the festival, the Pakistanis created a tradition of not just flying the kites, but battling them. Bands on the streets would play whenever someone's kite strings were cut, which led to people replacing their kite string with razor wire to up their advantage. The competitive nature of the kite flying has led to a shocking number of deaths, from cuts from razor wire to people falling off roofs or being hit by stray bullets. After 9 deaths in 2004 and 20 in 2005, the Pakistani government established the kite-flying ban. Bowing to public opinion, the government lifted the ban for the 2007 Basant, but that only resulted in ten more deaths. With odds like those, Charlie Brown's probably lucky he never got his kite off the ground.

2. Pole Vaulting

PoleVault-Edgerton.jpgWhen two pole vaulters were killed within five days of each other in 2002, the chairman of the USA Track and Field pole vaulting safety committee wasn't even shocked. After all, the flaws in pole vaulting had been clear for a while. With at least 18 deaths since 1982 out of only 25,000 participants, pole vaulting has the highest rate of death of any American sport. Most of the deaths came from high school competitions, where the rules aren't consistent between schools, let alone states. The size of the landing pad was the main culprit; the American Society for Testing and Measurement recommends a landing pad more than 21 feet wide and 16 feet long, but most schools had mats far smaller. Helmets were also an issue- there was no standardized helmet, so most competitors used a bike or skateboard helmet, if they had one at all. Since 2002, though, the Kevin Dare Memorial Fund (set up after the death of Kevin Dare, one of the 2002 fatalities) has been lobbying for increased safety and laws requiring helmets. The efforts seemed to have worked, since no deaths have been recorded since Dare's.

3. Pro Wresting

benoit.jpgOne of the most talked-about sports stories this summer was pro wrestler Chris Benoit's murder-suicide. Not as talked-about were the deaths of three fellow pro wrestlers since Benoit's death. In fact, since 1997, 65 pro wrestlers have died before they turned 50, according to journalist Dave Melzer. That's the equivalent of 186 MLB players or 435 from the NFL. Most of wrestling's deaths can be linked back to steroid use, whether it's an overdose or organ failure brought on by steroids. People are quick to blame WWE promoter Vince McMahon (who had his own death faked earlier this year) for the rampant drug use, since he once urged athletes to bulk up to drive up ratings.

PLUS: Ivy League football (pre-1905), and more, after the jump!

4. The Dakar Rally

dakar rally.jpgThe Dakar Rally sounds like something straight out of a movie: it's an off-road race with few rules, tricked-out cars, plenty of danger and, once, the disappearance of Margaret Thatcher's son. The rally got its auspicious beginning in 1977 when racer Thierry Sabine got lost and decided it would be a good place to have a race. Since then, it's been held annually starting in Paris and ending in Dakar, Senegal (or some approximation of those cities). Even though it's legally sanctioned, there aren't many rules, which has resulted in a whopping 48 competitor deaths, or 1.7 every year. 2005 was a particularly deadly year, with five deaths, including a five-year-old spectator who ran onto the road. In 2007, the organizers established speed limits to curb the deaths, which did result in a successful race, even though less than half of the contestants even made it to the finish line.

5. Football, pre-1905

flying wedge photo.jpgBefore 1905, one of the most popular plays in football was the flying wedge, where players would form a "˜V' around the ball carrier and protect him down the field. With plays like that and no passing, it should come as no surprise that football was a much more brutal sport. In fact, it was so brutal that 18 players died in 1905 alone, including three college players. That prompted president Teddy Roosevelt to call football's "Big Three," Princeton, Yale and Harvard (just imagine when those were football's top schools), to the White House and force them to reform the rules or he would declare football illegal. They went with the first option, getting rid of the flying wedge and legalizing the forward pass. Even still, it took a while before all schools adopted the new rules and made football safe (1909 saw 33 players killed), but eventually the pact among schools became the formal NCAA we know today.

6. BASE Jumping

base jump.jpgBASE jumping is a sport with very simple rules: take a parachute, find a tall object, jump. It takes its name from the four objects athletes jump from: Buildings, Antennae, Spans (bridges, etc.) and the Earth (cliffs and other natural formations). Not surprisingly, a sport that involves jumping into thin air has a pretty high death rate, mostly from parachute failures. William Harmon represented the modern era's first BASE jumping death when his canopy failed in high winds after a jump from a 1,000-foot antenna tower. Since his death, 114 others have died, which works out to about 4.5 every year. As a tribute to those who died, the fatalities are all recorded at the BASE fatality list.

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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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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]