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How Climate Change is Messing with Sports

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We've all heard about the dangers of global warming and climate change. It's going to make the oceans rise, drown our cities, kill plants, cause hurricanes and ruin the Earth for our grandkids. But that's all secondary to the real effects of global warming; it's wreaking havoc on the sports world. Here's a look at seven ways climate change is messing up sports.

Marathon Mayhem

Organizers were worried going into last weekend's Chicago Marathon. The temperatures were expected to top anything seen in the marathon's 30-year history, which meant some runners could overheat or become dehydrated. Either way, they knew times would be down. So they responded with new cooling stations, record amounts of water, 700 medical workers on standby and mist adapters for fire hydrants along the route. Even with all that planning, they weren't nearly ready for what happened. One man died from a heart condition and 312 other runners were treated at hospitals or medical stations. The city ran out of ambulances to treat runners and cut the race short, diverting runners to Grant Park, where they later complained of a lack of water. All told, the record-setting marathon (in temperatures only, not speed) was a mess and could cost Chicago the 2016 Olympics.

What Would Balto Say?

Not surprisingly, it's the winter sports that are getting hit hardest by the Earth's rising temperatures. Skiing officials around the world are trying to deal with retreating glaciers in the Alps and melting snow elsewhere in the world. Some estimates say that Aspen won't be able to support skiing as early as 2050. The Lake Champlain Ice Fishing Championship has been scrapped in recent years because the lake hasn't frozen over. Biathlon trials have been canceled. Even the Iditarod, that intrepid Alaskan race, has succumbed to heat. Every year since 2003, the race hasn't been able to start in the traditional starting point in Anchorage because of melting snow and slush. In the race's 30 years before 2003, the starting point had never been moved, but now the "Idita-detour," as one race official called it, has become a bit of a tradition itself.

Snow moves Cleveland to Milwaukee

indians snow.jpgThe 2007 Cleveland Indians season opened with high hopes, but this being Cleveland, those hopes couldn't be realized without a struggle. That struggle started right off the bat during the April 6 home opener against Seattle. With an unseasonable snow storm in town, the players started the game in conditions more akin to a nasty football game (check out one fan's video of the affair here). With only one strike left until the game could become official, the umps decided to call the game due to weather, much to the dismay of the Indians (who were on the wining end of a shutout). Some last-minute rescheduling and subsequent canceling of the remaining games of the series resulted in a four-day break for both teams, who spent the time playing in the snow. The next Indians series, this time against the Angels, was moved to Miller Park, where the teams could play under a roof and not worry about the freak snowstorm that followed the Indians to Milwaukee. The scheduling snafu from the canceled games meant both Cleveland and Seattle had to forfeit several days off to fit the games in and Cleveland would end up playing home games in three different cities.

Miami Dolphins Cool Off

The Miami Dolphins used to be really good, back in the days of the perfect season and Dan Marino. But lately, things haven't been as hot for the Dolphins. That's partly because of, well, how hot it's gotten. The scorching heat during training camp and the early season was endangering players during practices, so the team decided to build an air-conditioned "practice bubble." The bubble, which is oddly both inflatable and hurricane-safe, allowed the team to practice away from the sun and mimic the conditions of a domed stadium. However, it didn't allow the players to mimic the conditions of playing outside in the baking Florida sun. The Dolphins used to have a big edge in early season home games because they were so accustomed to working through the humidity, but since the bubble was built they've gone 5-8 in such games.

NASCAR Refuels

nascar-topper.jpgOf all the major sports, auto racing is hands-down the worst for the environment. An event that involves hundreds of cars driving for several hours could only be topped by, say, the World Championship Triathlon of Tree Chopping, Gas Burning and Baby Seal Clubbing (coming this winter to ESPN2). However, stock cars have been taking steps to go greener. The IndyCar Series is racing on 100 percent ethanol, while the American LeMans series has switched to a 10 percent ethanol mixture (every little bit helps). NASCAR hasn't taken the plunge yet, but they're expected to. Of course, given that it took them a couple of decades to switch to unleaded fuels, I wouldn't hold your breath. There's no timeline on a NASCAR switch to alternative fuels, which would also require them to make over the cars to run effectively.

Super Bowl XL, as in XL degrees

The first time Detroit hosted the Super Bowl in 1982, ice storms hit the city and the wind chill effect made it feel like it was 27 below outside. That led the NFL to avoid cold-weather sites; with the exception of Minneapolis in 1992, the Super Bowl didn't go north again until 2006, when it returned to Detroit. Rather than fighting the supposedly inevitable winter storm that would hit the city, organizers decided to embrace it and turn Detroit into a winter wonderland. Instead, global warming threw the city for a loop with highs in the 40's and rain, not snow. A 28-foot-tall snow slide melted and the Motown Winter Blast had to cope with conditions that even made the fake snow melt. All of the intense planning that went into snow removal almost went to waste. It did snow on Super Bowl Sunday, but nowhere near what organizers were expecting, forcing them to scrap most of the snow-themed festivities around the city.

Buggy Baseball

joba bugs.jpgBlame it on the curse of Rocky Colavito, but the Cleveland Indians have gotten hit by global warming twice this year alone. During last week's anticipated series between the Indians and the Yankees, it was the non-roster players that ended up capturing the headlines: a swarm of bugs that set on the field like a plague of locusts in the eighth inning. They buzzed around the players and forced coaches to grab all the OFF they could find. Trying to battle the bugs, Yankee phenom Joba Chamberlain threw a wild pitch that allowed a run to score. Ask any Yankees fan and they'll say they only lost the game, and the series, because of the bugs. The bugs in question, midges, seek out warm weather and usually can't be found in Cleveland in October, when temperatures dip. But the unseasonable weather meant the midges were still around during postseason baseball (where the April-like freezing temps are more the norm) and were attracted by the bright lights of the stadium, where they put their stamp on the path to the World Series.

Note: For more reading on global warming in sports, check out this excellent article from Sports Illustrated in March. Also, see this piece from Slate about which spectator sports are best for the environment.

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]