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Upset Specials: 7 Stunners Not Involving Joe Namath, Buster Douglas or Cold War-era Olympic Hockey

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Earlier today, Rocco Mediate was unable to cement his place in upset history, falling to Tiger Woods in a sudden-death playoff. So Rocco doesn't make this list of stunning upsets that Ethan Trex wrote back in February after Super Bowl XLII.

After the Giants beat the Patriots, two things were bound to happen. First, Eli Manning was going to look extremely confused in a "Wow, even I didn't see this coming"¦" kind of way. Then the hyperbole-driven sports media was going to start calling this "the biggest upset in history!!!!!!" (Actually, they'll probably use more exclamation points, but you get the idea.) While Super Bowl XLII may well have been the biggest upset in history, don't forget some of these less obvious choices:

1. The 1993 Grammy for Best Rock Song

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Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" provided an anthem for the entire grunge movement and inspired thousands of teenage boys to buy Stratocasters, learn the song's opening chords, then lose interest in the guitar in favor of Pog trading. Seems like a logical pick for the year's top rock song, right? If not "Smells Like Teen Spirit," then Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" won, right?

Nope, both lost to Eric Clapton's unplugged version of "Layla." It makes perfect sense if you ignore the fact that the song was already 23 years old or that the acoustic version obviously lacks both the initial guitar riff and the lengthy piano outro that made the original so hypnotic. Or that Clapton and Pattie Boyd, the song's subject and George Harrison's ex-wife, were long divorced when this version was recorded. It had intelligible lyrics, and apparently that's all that mattered.

2. The 1992 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress

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Marisa Tomei's win for her work in My Cousin Vinny was such an upset that observers assumed she'd received the Oscar in error. It seemed so improbable that Tomei's turn as Joe Pesci's strident fiancée would beat out competition that included Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson that rumors circulated that presenter Jack Palance read the wrong name after imbibing a few too many drinks before the show. Although the Academy publicly stated that such an error could not possibly happen since officials of Price Waterhouse, the firm that counted the votes, waited off-stage in case of just such a mix-up, the rumors persisted. All this sniping kind of makes Tomei's never getting to go out with George Costanza seem like a minor indignity.

3. The 1994 NBA Western Conference Playoffs

The 1993-94 Seattle Supersonics were an incredibly stacked team that featured a young (and still somewhat svelte) Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton entering his prime, Nate McMillan, Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins, and a solid supporting cast. They ran out to a league-best 63-19 record to earn the top seed in the Western playoffs.

Their first-round opponents, the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets, on the other hand, were a bit less intimidating. Sure, they had a young Dikembe Mutombo (difficult to visualize, I know), but the rest of the roster was filled with guys whose basketball cards you definitely didn't want. (Apologies to Robert Pack, Bryant Stith, and Tom Hammonds.) Yet somehow after dropping the first two contests in the five-game series, the Nuggets reeled off three straight wins to become the NBA's first eight seed to triumph over a one seed. It was such an improbable upset that Shawn Kemp's probably still telling his kids about it.

4. The 2007 Indianapolis Mayoral Race

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Although we love Hoosiers, Indiana can apparently foster more than just high school basketball upsets. In this election Republican Greg Ballard managed to depose two-term incumbent mayor Bart Peterson despite being almost comically outspent throughout the campaign. How severe was the spending difference? At the outset of the campaign, Peterson boasted a $2.9 million war chest, while Ballard had $9,560 to his political name, enough to buy a decent used Accord, but a little thin to win a major office. The former Marine Corps lieutenant colonel persisted, though, and despite spotty support from his party, won the election by a 51%-47% margin, ironically enough in the same calendar year that the heavily favored hometown Colts managed to avoid choking in the playoffs for the first time in ages.

5. The 1986 World Snooker Championship

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The Giants' win as 12-point underdogs was impressive, but it sounds positively probable compared to Joe Johnson's run to the 1986 World Snooker Championship. At the outset of the tournament, outsider Johnson was something of a heavy underdog; betting on him to win got you 150-1 odds. He managed to walk into Sheffield's Crucible Theater, though, and dominate the competition, including pasting the world's top-ranked player, Steve Davis, 18-12 in the final, a feat that would likely receive much more ink here if a single American knew how to play snooker.

6. The 2003 Cannes Lions Advertising Festival

Director Spike Jonze can make almost anything entertaining. From his breezy music videos like the one for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" to quirky features like Adaptation, Jonze's work has earned a slew of admirers, including ad men. In 2003, ad firm Crispin Porter's Jonze-directed "Lamp" spot for Ikea beat out Honda's heavily-favored "Cog" spot from Wieden+Kennedy London, which featured a Rube-Goldberg-esque progression of rolling car parts, to win the Grand Prix at the annual Cannes festival known as "the Olympics of advertising." Which ad was really better? See for yourself.

Honda "Cog"

Ikea "Lamp"

7. The 1913 U.S. Open

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While an amateur winning one of golf's major championships sounds completely inconceivable in the modern game, it wasn't much more probable in 1913, when former 20-year-old Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open on the Brookline, Massachusetts course where he'd previously worked as a caddy. Aided by 10-year-old caddy Eddie Lowery, Ouimet stunned heavily favored British pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray to become the first amateur to win the Open. His unlikely feat earned Ouimet a spot in golf's Hall of Fame, and Mark Frost's historical account The Greatest Game Ever Played inspired a movie of the same name starring Shia LeBeouf.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys. For a recent mental_floss story, he somehow lumped together Beavis & Butthead and The Puppy Bowl.

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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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