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All Knotted Up: Culture's Great Tiebreakers

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The Tiebreaker Heard 'Round the World

In the Colorado Rockies' unbelievable 21-1 run to clinch a World Series berth, arguably the biggest win was their October 1 victory over the San Diego Padres, a tiebreaker game to enter the postseason. It was only the twelfth tiebreaker game in baseball history, an impressive slate of games that includes Bucky Dent's famous homer and a gem by Randy Johnson. But none is more famous than game 3 of the 1951 three-game playoff (back when tiebreakers were a three-game series), which ended in a Bobby Thompson walk-off home run. Baseball's version of "The Shot Heard "˜Round the World" came after an awesome 37-7 run by the Giants to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers. The tiebreaker started with the first game to be broadcast across the entire country and included (ominously) a Bobby Thompson homer. That's how it ended, too, when Thompson launched a three-run shot to give the Giants a spot in the postseason. The iconic baseball moment, memorialized by Russ Hodges' exuberant broadcast, has been sullied a bit in recent years with allegations that it was aided by sign-stealing.

The Tiebreaker that Changed the Country

We all remember the 2000 Election, the tiebreaker to end all tiebreakers. It was month-long battle of recounts, hanging chads, butterfly ballots and visions of democracy. And it all ended in the Supreme Court, with a narrow 5-4 vote giving the election to George Bush. The election changed the face of the White House for the next seven years (who hasn't had a vision of the bizarro USA where Al Gore is president?) and also sparked all kinds of election reform. It also brought the idea of how to resolve an even 50-50 election to the forefront of the nation. Here are some highlights of the world's election tiebreakers:

  • A December, 2000 election for township supervisor in a Michigan town ended in an even tie (after a recount). So they followed Michigan law, which calls for a lottery. First, the two candidates flipped a coin and the winner randomly chose one piece of paper. One read "elected," the other "not elected." Even the loser couldn't argue with the method, saying it was "the democratic way."
  • Hong Kong elections that end in a draw means breaking out the Bingo set. Candidates who are tied randomly pick ping-pong balls and the one with the higher number wins. Even though the system has detractors, the citizens are largely behind it, especially since the culture in Hong Kong believes in the power of fate.
  • Tied New Mexico elections end in a game of chance. What game? The law doesn't specify; it could be anything from a coin flip to a hand of poker. Heck, they could even break out the Uno cards.

The Tiebreaker that Popularized the Sports Bra

The 1999 US World Cup team was almost entirely anonymous, since it's a) soccer and b) a women's sport. But the team made magazine covers and TV highlight reels with one image: Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey to reveal her sports bra. That came after one intense tiebreaker (which I distinctly remember watching), a shootout to take the title over the Chinese team. The funny thing is, Chastain wasn't even supposed to be in the game. But, on a hunch, coach Tony DiCicco put her in to break a 4-4 tie in the shootout. That kick and subsequent stripping put women's soccer on the map, made Mia Hamm a superstar and put the sports bra in style. Unfortunately, the appeal has worn off, as evidenced by the sport's new set of commercials featuring Rainn "Dwight" Wilson as a publicist trying to get people to notice the new women's team.

The Tiebreaker that Stopped the Senate

chester-arthur-picture.jpgOne of the perks of being vice-president, besides getting automatic speculation for a future presidential run, is getting to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate. It doesn't come up much (only 12 times since 1991), but when it does, it's a big deal and can tip the legislature in the president's favor. But no tiebreaker was as big, or as interesting, as the one in March, 1881. New Republican president James Garfield had put up a new slate of nominees for committee chairmen, but the Senate ended up in a 37-37 deadlock. So it fell to VP Chester Arthur, who went with the president and really peeved the Democrats. They tried to strike a bargain, then refused to continue to vote. For the next two months, they would walk out whenever the Republicans tried to get the vote going, Later, two Republican senators resigned in protest of Garfield's appointment of a New York federal post, giving the Democrats a two-vote majority in the Senate. Ever willing to negotiate, though, the two parties decided to just table the staffing issue for the term, ending the bitterness from Arthur's tiebreaking vote.

The Tiebreaker that Took Forever

Arkansas is the king of overtime in college football. Since the NCAA put their overtime tie-breaking method in place in 1996, the Razorbacks are 6-1 in overtime games, including the three longest overtime sessions. The longest was in 2003, when they took Kentucky to seven overtimes. After the seven OT's (Arkansas' second 7OT game), the final score was a then-record 71-63. The whole game took just under five hours and featured, oddly enough, two blocked punts returned for touchdowns.

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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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.