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A Brief History of Soccer

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As a German soccer fan, I've been doing quite a bit of screaming the past few weeks—especially on Tuesday, after Germany defeated Turkey for a place in the Euro Cup finals against Spain on Sunday. This beautiful game inspires a fanatical devotion in its fans not seen in any other sport. But it wasn't always the technical game you see before you today. In fact, soccer boasts a colorful history that has everything from roaming mobs to decapitated heads. Here's a quick look.

Military training and fertility rites

The earliest recorded evidence of a soccer-type game comes to us from the third century B.C. in China. A military manual from the Han dynasty details an exercise in which a leather ball, filled with either hair or feathers, was kicked into a tiny net fixed on narrow bamboo canes. Similar games have been played all over the world, leading scholars to suggest that the game may have originated in some parts as a pagan fertility rite, with the ball symbolizing the sun. Or people just liked kicking things.

Kicking around a decapitated prince

The predecessor of modern football (and by football, I mean soccer) started out a celebration of sorts. During the 3rd century, the British would celebrate victories against their enemies with a rousing game of football. Legend has it that the first time this celebratory sport was played in Britain was after the defeat of a Danish Prince. After decapitating the Prince, in true barbarian fashion, they decided to kick around his head. No word on who had to clean up after them.

Mob football

By the 8th century, a good portion of the British Isles were playing soccer. The aptly named "mob football" had an indeterminate number of players, almost no rules, and wasn't even played on a field. Hundreds of players, usually members of two neighboring villages, would attempt to get the ball into the designated area by any means necessary during matches that could last all day. This resulted in plenty of fighting, biting and punching as the large mob moved through the village streets. In some cases, the ball or sphere being used was too large to kick, so the players simply kicked each other instead.

Hustling over large balls

Although the game was frequently played by aristocrats (who used a pig's bladder as a ball), King Edward II was none too happy to see his citizens mobbing the streets and beating each other just for fun. To combat what he considered a vulgar sport, he passed laws that would imprison anyone caught playing soccer. In his proclamation, he said, "For as much as there is a great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise, which God forbid, we command and forbid on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city future." Queen Elizabeth I took it a step further. Not only would she send you to jail for a week for playing mob football, she would also force you to go to church to seek penance.

The origin of halftime

Early football players pretty much made up the rules as they went along, resulting in some very interesting and impossible-to-referee games. Some teams would pick up the ball and run around like mad, while others considered it cheating. To make it fair, teams decided to divide the game into halves, playing by the rules of one team during the first half and then switching it up for the second. The break we know as half-time was born.

Isn't it called football?

In 1863, schools from across England met to decide on a standard set of rules for the game of football. Trouble was, they couldn't agree on a standard set of rules. They remained divided into two camps, those who supported the Cambridge rules (no hands) and those who liked the Rugby school rules (carry the ball all you want). The camps split and as a result, The Football Association was formed.

Around that same time, those crazy kids at Oxford University created a trendy slang in which they shortened words and added "er" to the end (Rugby was now called "rugger.") Legend has it that one such trendsetter, Charles Wreford Brown, was asked if he played the sport of rugger. "No" he replied, "Soccer," having shortened association into "soc." Just think, if this actually did happen, and if he had chosen differently, we could be talking about the sport called "footer." Or "asser."

[Image courtesy]

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]