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Sports' Most Miserable Fans

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Every sports fan has their share of misery, but I think mine takes the cake. I grew up cheering for any team from Cleveland, an unfortunate bunch that collectively hasn't won a championship since 1964. Voted the most miserable sports city by ESPN, Cleveland's despair is unmatched: we've got The Catch, The Drive, The Fumble, The Collapse, The Shot, Game Seven and, of course, The Move. College wouldn't bring any more joy; I go to Northwestern, where most would rather spend their Saturdays studying than tailgating. The football team hasn't won a bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl, including a Divison1-A record 34 straight losses. And let's not talk about the basketball team, which has never (never!) made the NCAA tournament and is ranked 320 out of 326 programs all-time.

But things are looking up for me; The Cavs have LeBron James, The Wildcats are 2-0 and the Indians are on the verge of making the playoffs. So, in the spirit of Schadenfreude, here's a look at five sports fans more miserable than me.

1. Jim Coan

Jim Coan hasn't watched Liverpool FC, his favorite football (soccer, in American) team, in a decade; doctor's orders. He suffers from atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disturbance that can knock him out if he gets too excited. Anyone who's seen the World Cup knows that excitement is what football fans do best. They cheer, scream and sing to the point where you've got to worry about someone having a stroke. Since finding out about the condition, he's missed the team playing in a couple of league championships and a victory in the FA cup. He's also had to cut back on scuba diving and parachuting, but says he hasn't completely given up on the team; he still watches highlights of the matches and cheers them on, though in a somewhat duller fashion.

2. Laura Gibbons

jgib2.gifBaltimore Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons either has horrible or impeccable aim. Either way, he managed to hit his wife, Laura, with a foul ball last year. The ball struck Laura in the ribs and left her with some bruising; luckily she avoided more serious damage. Adding more irony to the incident is the fact that Jay had always been an advocate for more foul ball protection for fans; earlier that year he had spoken to management about raising the walls and adding a daycare center for children.

3. Brittanie Cecil

Despite being one of the most aggressive contact sports, hockey is surprisingly safe. In fact, only one fan has been killed in the NHL's history. Tragically, it was a 13-year-old girl, which sent shock waves through the NHL community. Brittanie Cecil was struck in 2002 with a deflected slapshot that sailed over the protective glass at an estimated 100 mph. Her head snapped back, causing rare artery damage (the doctor treating her said he had never seen anything like it). She died two days after being hit, leading the NHL to investigate ways to improve safety for fans to prevent another death.

4. Prairie View A&M

120px-PVAM.PNGAs any Michigan student will tell you, having to watch a football team lose week after week can really put a damper on the college experience. So what happens when you go your entire college career without seeing a win? Students at Prairie View, a school in Texas, crushed the NCAA record for consecutive losses by losing 80 straight games in the "˜90s. The streak started in October, 1989 and didn't end until 1998, meaning that five classes didn't celebrate a victory. The worst season was 1991, when they gave up an average of 56 points per game while only scoring 48 total. Most fans only came to see the marching band, which only made the team's 80th loss more bitter. The band was suspended after a brawl with the Southern University band, officially making the 37-7 loss the worst for Panthers fans (luckily, they won the next game).

5. Steven Manganello

Every member of the Red Sox Nation lived for the 2004 World Series, when they broke their 86-year curse. Even Steven Manganello, a long-time Sox fan made sure he booked his vacation in Japan so he could make it back before the playoffs started. Then came the twist you just can't make up. On his last night in Japan, he was struck by a taxi and went into a coma. On top of the brain hemorrhage, potential paralysis, broken ribs and punctured lung, he missed the playoffs, the historic ALCS comeback against the Yankees and the long-awaited World Series victory. He drifted in and out of consciousness, so he was fed updates by his brother and friends (who even lied to him and pretended the Sox had been winning the ALCS the whole time). He recovered by the summer, when he watched tapes of the playoff games, but admitted that the experience was bittersweet.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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