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An Unofficial Guide to Life as a Ref

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Sunday's Broncos-Chargers game was a classic shootout between rivals, but unfortunately all most fans will remember is referee Ed Hochuli incorrectly calling a Jay Cutler fumble an incomplete pass, thereby preventing the Chargers from sealing a victory. If you've watched any sports news, you know what happened next: Cutler fired a touchdown pass and completed a two-point conversion to hand the Chargers a loss in a game they should by all rights have won.


Although Hochuli didn't hesitate to admit he blew the call, what was he thinking? Were his enormous biceps blocking his eyes? Aren't these refs trained professionals? Are they handsomely rewarded? What do we really know about the zebras, anyway? We did some digging. Here's what we found:

They seriously get paid.

An NFL ref can make anywhere from $25,000 to $70,000 a season, although since most of the games are on Sundays, they can also have other jobs during the week. (We'll get to those in a minute.) That cash comes with responsibilities, though. In addition to relaying the calls to the teams and fans, a ref is also the crew chief, or leader, of the seven-man officiating team that also includes an umpire, a field judge, a back judge, a line judge, a side judge, and a head linesman.

Officials in other sports pull down more loot, but they have much more grueling schedules...

Baseball_umpire.jpg"¢ Baseball. According to MLB.com, Major League Baseball umpires get around $120,000 when they start out in the big leagues, and senior umps can earn upwards of $350,000. Between spring training, a 162-game schedule, and the postseason, being an MLB ump is a job that takes up most of the year. They are, however, well cared-for while on the road. Each ump gets a $340 per diem to cover hotel and food, and when they fly, it's always first class. They also get four weeks of paid vacation during the regular season. These guys hang onto their jobs, too; on average, there's only one opening for a new big-league ump each season.


"¢ Basketball. NBA refs are similarly well compensated. They earn anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 for an 82-game season. There are some nice fringe benefits, too; when referee Tim Donaghy admitted to helping gamblers fix games, the NBA asked that he repay other benefits he'd pulled in over the course of his 13-year career, including $750 worth of sneakers and $4500 worth of free tickets.

"¢ Hockey. If you can skate and survive the occasional lockout, NHL ref is hardly a bad job. Refs make between $110,000 and $255,000 while linesmen earn from $72,000 to $162,000. (Plus, free trips to Columbus and Raleigh!)

"¢ Women's Basketball. Not all refs are rewarded this handsomely. As you might guess, refs in less popular sports command smaller salaries. According to a 2007 article on sports site scout.com, WNBA refs earn between $600 and $800 a game during the league's 32-game season. That's a floor of just over $19,000 a year for a pretty rigorous job. As the same article notes, women's hoops refs are better off officiating a major-conference college game at $1200 a pop than working a WNBA tilt.

NFL refs have day jobs.

Since NFL refs only work one day each week, they can have "real" jobs to supplement what they earn on any given Sunday. Some of them actually have pretty interesting jobs.

Mike Carey, my personal favorite ref, is an entrepreneur and inventor who holds eight patents for snow sports apparel. He founded and co-owns Seirus Innovation, a ski apparel company.

Walt_Coleman.jpgWalt Coleman (pictured) is infamous in Oakland for being the ref in the "Tuck Rule Game," but he's also a fifth-generation dairy farmer who once held the position of president of the Arkansas Dairy Products Association.


Walter Anderson became an official in the league in 1996 and got the promotion to referee in 2003. Prior to becoming a referee, he was better known as Dr. Walt Anderson, a dentist.

Tony Corrente is probably used to dealing with unruly crowds of guys from his day job as a high-school social studies teacher.

"¢ If Jeff Triplette seems hard to scare on the field, it's probably because he's seen worse. He was an Army Reserve colonel during the Persian Gulf War, where he was awarded a bronze star.

Bill Leavy is similarly tough; he spent 27 years as a police officer and firefighter in San Jose.

Ron Winter's not just a ref, he's also an associate professor in Western Michigan University's phys. ed. department.

Gene Steratore must love how he looks in stripes. In addition to being an NFL ref, he officiates NCAA hoops games and has drawn March Madness assignments in previous seasons.

"¢ And when Ed Hochuli isn't working out or officiating a game, you might find him in a courtroom. He's a trial lawyer in the Arizona firm Jones, Skelton, and Hochuli, which employs over 80 attorneys.

It's a long climb to the top.

How does one become a ref? Most of these guys have humble beginnings as officials. Carey started officiating Pop Warner games in 1972 and gradually worked his way up through the college ranks. Eventually, he became an NFL side judge in 1990 and received a promotion to NFL referee, the pinnacle of football officiating, in 1995. Hochuli started as a Pop Warner ref in the early 1970s; he was a law school student who needed a little extra pocket cash. He then slowly made his way up through high school, junior college, and small conference college ball before getting a Pac-10 gig. He eventually made it to the NFL in 1990. It's a slow build, but if you stick it out long enough and have some natural talent, you can be the one patting his head to signal an ineligible receiver downfield.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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