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Football's Most Painful Injuries

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This season, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has set out to make his league a kinder, gentler place. Linebackers groomed since Pop Warner days to inflict maximum carnage now face heavy fines if they bang a quarterback's head or knee--even though those remain perfectly legal plays. Meanwhile, rumors swirl that Goodell will soon change the game's rules to make quarterbacks safer than the Boy in the Bubble.


Besides outraging linebackers and fans alike, Goodell's gambit calls to mind the hideous injuries that distinguish football as America's favorite sport. As graphic as a real-time injury can be--and the ones described below have been replayed millions of times on YouTube--they overshadow lesser-known maladies that can hurt just as much.

Is a leg supposed to do that?: Compound fracture

There's a sort of deer-in-headlines fascination about a limb bending where it's not supposed to--like when bone-crushing New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor mauled Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theisman in what fans later voted the most shocking moment in NFL history:

The tackle snapped Theisman's shin like a matchstick. Doctors spent hours wiping grass and dirt off the protruding tibia before they could set it. Theisman hoped to go back into the game, but he never played again, nor has he ever watched a replay of that fateful tackle.

That was in 1985, and the footage pales by comparison to the mangled legs captured with today's television cameras. Take, for instance, the multiple angles and slow-mo analysis of the compound fracture suffered by the Denver Broncos' Ed McCaffery in 2001. As his leg whips around like a rubber chew toy, McCaffery still catches the ball! That's good for a first down and an ambulance ride.

Just a bruise—or is it?: Compartment syndrome

Earlier this year, doctors rushed Redskins defensive end (and Dancing with the Stars runner-up) Jason Taylor into emergency surgery—for a bruise. It wasn't an ordinary bruise, though. After a sharp blow to Taylor's leg, fluid rapidly became trapped inside, building pressure that can damage nerves, cut off blood flow, release deadly blood clots, and even necessitate amputation. This freak condition, called compartment syndrome, is hard for even seasoned athletes to avoid. Cory Hogue, a linebacker at the University of Central Florida, fortunately avoided those complications and recovered from compartment syndrome in one leg, only to have his season ended by compartment syndrome in the other leg.

Pop goes the knee: Ligament tear

A collapsed knee generally means two things: torn ligaments and a replay on that night's SportsCenter. In 2003, the knee of Miami Hurricanes running back Willis McGahee had a head-on collision with a defender's helmet, folding it backward like a kicked-in door and tearing three of its four ligaments. McGahee rehabbed successfully, though, and that once-shredded knee has since carried him to nearly 40 NFL touchdowns. In last weekend's AFC Championship game, McGahee—now with the Baltimore Ravens—lay motionless on the turf for several minutes before being carted off on a stretcher. He's got a concussion and a sore neck, but will make a full recovery.

Another running back, Napoleon McCallum, wasn't as lucky. A two-time All American who set 26 records at the Naval Academy, McCallum's pro career looked equally promising--until this gag-inducing, cover-your-eyes tackle. 49ers linebacker Ken Norton bearhugged McCallum from the front, landed on McCallum's knee, and bent it backward like a child's toy bow. "Oh Lord, don't look at this if you don't want to see it," wailed announcer Dan Dierdorf. After six surgeries and months in a wheelchair, McCallum tried to mount a comeback but quit when he lost a footrace to five-year-old girl.

Wounded in the worst place: Sports hernia

Three words: Chronic groin pain. Like a serrated knife to the bone, a sports hernia hurts in the worst way and in the worst place.

A sports hernia isn't a hernia in the classic sense. Instead, it involves a tear in the muscle attached to the pubic bone. The Philadelphia Eagles have lost so many players to sports hernias--at least seven, including star quarterback Donovan McNabb--that one hysterical sportswriter called it an epidemic. Matt Birk, the center of the Minnesota Vikings, had three by himself. He tried to play through the pain by using his hips for leverage instead of his sore groin—a bad idea, because he then tore the labrums in both hips. The result: five surgeries, one on each hip, and three to repair the sports hernias.

Doctor, my eyes!: Eye trauma

Eye injuries aren't common in football--the guys wear helmets, after all, often equipped with visors. So when an eye gouge does occur, it's not always an accident. Earlier this season, the above-mentioned Willis McGahee (seriously, what's the deal with Willis McGahee?) caught a finger directly in the eye, with bloody results. He maintains that the poke was intentional. And when John Henderson of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Andrew Whitworth of the Cincinnati Bengals rumbled earlier this month, Henderson went right for his adversary's eyes.

In a toe jam: Turf toe

Footballers are tough men used to playing through pain, but a bad case of turf toe can bring even the toughest to his toes, er, knees. A turf toe forms when your big toe bends backward too far, causing chronic swelling and extreme pain in the tissues beneath the foot. It causes college athletes to miss more time than anything except knee injuries. Even with rest, stretching, and surgery, the injury can outlast a football career. Over half the people with turf toe still have pain five years later, and many develop arthritis. Turf toe dogged flamboyant cornerback Deion Sanders for years and forced Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert into early retirement.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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iStock
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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]

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