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The Quick 10: 10 Things You Can Contribute to March Madness Conversations

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I'm not very into basketball. I mean, I filled out a bracket and everything, but I filled it out pretty much based on their rankings and then threw in a couple of surprise underdog wins just for the heck of it. I have no idea what I'm doing. Now Fug Madness"¦ I could take you all down in Fug Madness. Except I made a major misstep by thinking Speidi was going to out-fug SWINTON"¦ that's going to come back to bite me.

I digress. Since I don't know much about basketball and can't jump into the conversation about teams with injured players or stats or anything like that, I thought I'd do a little research so I can at least offer up some interesting facts about the tournament. Here are my findings"¦ we'll see if I can work them into conversation without sounding totally awkward.

porter1. The term "March Madness" was popularized by H.V. Porter, who has some sweet hair (that's him in the picture). The phrase had nothing to do with college sports "“ it actually involved a high school tournament sponsored by the Illinois High School Association, which Porter belonged to (he was actually the assistant executive secretary of the organization). In 1939, Porter wrote an essay called "March Madness" for the IHSA's magazine. The first time "March Madness" was used to describe the NCAA tournament was in 1982, when a CBS sportscaster used it.
2. Even though one of their own coined the term, the IHSA didn't own the trademark "March Madness." You might suspect the NCAA snapped it up first "“ nope. By the time anyone thought to go after a trademark in the 1990s, it had already been taken by a television company. The IHSA bought the rights and then tried to sue the NCAA for using the term, but the United States Court of Appeals decided it was a dual-use trademark, so both parties are able to legally use the phrase.

3. You've probably noticed the winning team cutting down the net at the end of the game, but what happens to it? Well, everyone gets a piece. Each player gets to cut a strand off of the net, and the head coach gets the final strand and whatever part of the net is left.

4. There have only been two years where no #1 seed has made the Final Four "“ 1980 (#2 Louisville, #5 Iowa, #6 Purdue and #8 UCLA) and 2006 (#2 UCLA, #2 Florida, #4 LSU and #11 George Mason).

5. Since the games were expanded to include 64 teams, no #16 seed has ever defeated a #1 seed, although there have been some close calls "“ one even went into overtime (Murray State vs. Michigan State in 1990). And if you chose a #15 over a #2 seed in your bracket, that was probably a mistake as well"¦ 96% of the time, the #2 seed wins.

floor6. For more than 20 years, the winning team has also gotten to keep the floor from the game that won them the title. The school can do whatever they want with it "“ some reuse in their own arenas, some sell pieces to students and fans, and others even donate it (Duke did, which I point out to get brownie points from Will, Mangesh and Jason).
7. When the NCAA tournament was first held, there were slots for only eight teams. That makes for a pretty short March Madness, I guess! The first eight teams were Texas, Oklahoma, Utah State, Villanova, Brown, Wake Forest, Oregon and Ohio State. The latter two competed for the championship and Oregon won. It's the only time they've won.

8. According to one estimate, American business lose around $237 million a day during March Madness because employees are busy talking about games, filling out brackets, checking scores on the computer or taking time off to sit in front of the T.V.

9. You know there are some knuckle-biters in March Madness, but quadruple overtime?! Yup "“ it has happened twice. In 1956, Canisius College was playing N.C. State in the quarterfinals. Even though the Golden Griffins were huge underdogs, the score was tied at the end of regulation. At the end of the first OT, the score was 69-69. One shot each made it 71-71 at the end of the second, and it stayed that way for the end of the third as well. It was 77-78 N.C. State with four seconds left when Cansius' Fran Corcoran hit a shot and won them the game, 79-78.

The second time it happened was in 1961, when St. Joe's played the University of Utah. The regulation game ended 89-89, and then in the first OT, a St. Joe's player sunk a basket"¦ for Utah. Whoops. The first OT ended with a score of 97-97. The second OT saw 101 for both teams, and the third was 112-112. Finally, in the fourth, the Hawks got tired of messing around with the Utes and ended the game 127-120. Awesome! Except it ended up not counting. Three of the St. Joe's players were involved in a gambling scandal immediately after the tournament and their historic win was stricken from the records. And no, I didn't actually know any of this (are you kidding me?). These two fabulous stories come from Allen Zullo's book March to Madness.

10. In 1940, Mary Jo McCracken, the wife of Indiana coach Branch McCracken (that's a heck of a name, isn't it?) thought his players were too stressed about the game. So she sneaked them out of the hotel room after her husband went to bed and took them to see Gone with the Wind. You know, to de-stress. It must have worked "“ they smashed the Jayhawks 60-42 and won the championship. (That story's also from the fabulous March to Madness.

So, there you have it. If anyone successfully uses these in water-cooler conversations, be sure to let me know. I like to feel like I've done something to contribute to the $237 million American corporations have lost today.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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]