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If They Build It: 9 Other Sports Facilities by the Architects of Camden Yards

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In 1983, Chris Carver, Ron Labinski, Joe Spear, and Dennis Wellner founded the first architecture firm dedicated exclusively to the design of sports facilities. HOK Sports Venue Event operated under the St. Louis-based HOK Group, an established leader in the field that was launched in 1955 by Washington University in St. Louis School of Architecture graduates George Hellmuth, Gyo Obata, and George Kassabaum.

After 25 years as an HOK subsidiary, HOK Sports Venue Event principals, including Spear, exchanged their HOK stock for ownership of HOK SVE and rebranded their independently owned, 500-person practice with the name Populous. While its title has changed, the firm formerly referred to as HOK Sport remains synonymous with excellence in sports architecture. It has designed nearly 1,000 projects and events since its inception and has played a role in the creation of some of the world's premier sports facilities. Here's a closer look at 10 of them, including the baseball stadium that launched many more.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards

In the firm's early years, Populous architects created Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium and the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. They also renovated more than a dozen baseball stadiums, with most of those projects involving the addition of luxury boxes. The firm's first original major league baseball stadium, new Comiskey Park in Chicago, opened in 1991, but it was the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore one year later that established a trend in ballpark design. The stadium, with its asymmetrical playing field, steel trusses, brick facade, and iconic B&O Warehouse, was a throwback and a gem. "Like the Green Monster at Fenway or the ivy-colored walls at Wrigley, the wall of the warehouse will become instantly recognizable as part of the Baltimore stadium," said Spear, the principal design architect of the ballpark. Camden Yards became the model upon which future ballparks were designed and measured. The firm has since played a role in the development of AT&T Park, Busch Stadium, Citi Field, Great American Ballpark, Nationals Park, PETCO Park, PNC Park, and Yankee Stadium.

Dubai Autodrome

dubai.jpgBaseball stadiums aren't the only facilities on Populous' resume. The Dubai Autodrome, the Middle East's first fully integrated motorsports facility, features one of the most challenging tracks in the world. The venue was officially inaugurated on April 1, 2004. One thousand VIPs, including UAE dignitaries and motorsports celebrities, attended the black-tie ceremony, which was capped with a fireworks and laser show. The venue's 5.39 km track hosts international events and is home to the Racing Academy, which is dedicated to cultivating racing talent in UAE. For a fee, amateurs may take a spin around the track in one of a number of different racecars. According to Populous, the marketing building it created in the adjacent business park was "designed to create a feeling of motion and balance with the surrounding track and infrastructure. With almost no vertical line on the building, the structure defines the DNA of all buildings on the site."

Wembley Stadium

wembley.jpgThe defining feature of London's new Wembley Stadium, which opened in 2007 and is used primarily for soccer, is the 440-foot arch that rises above the venue's roof. In addition to the aesthetic value that the arch adds to the stadium's design, it also functions to support the stadium's enormous steel roof, eliminating the need for pillars and improving the sightlines from the 90,000 seats inside. When closed, the roof's retractable panels cover every seat in the stadium, but not the entire pitch. The stadium's design, which was a joint effort of Populous and Foster & Partners, bears a striking resemblance to a 1941 sketch by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, but Niemeyer said that any similarities between his design for a national stadium in Rio de Janeiro, which was never built, and Wembley were pure coincidence. The stadium, which cost nearly $2 billion to build, opened 4 years behind schedule and 8 years after the old Wembley Stadium, which Pele dubbed "the church of football," was closed.

Taipei Arena

taipei.jpgTaipei Arena opened on Dec. 12, 2005, on the site of the former Taipei municipal baseball stadium and was the first major entertainment building to be built in Taipei in more than 20 years. While the multi-purpose building was designed primarily for sports "“ its natatorium, 20,000-seat arena, Olympic-size ice rink, and tennis center can accommodate a variety of athletic events "“ its high-quality acoustics have made it a popular venue for musical acts as well. According to Populous, the basement of the arena is used to house two gas turbine power generators, which could be used in the event of an emergency. The arena was used for the inauguration of President Ma-Ying Jeou in 2008.

Oval Lingotto

ice.jpg

The speed skating venue was the last major construction project of the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. Populous collaborated with Studio Zoppini on the design, which received a 2007 Gold Award from the International Association for Sports and Leisure Facilities (IAKS) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While the building was designed to facilitate fast times, no records were set in Turin. That was in part due to the quality of the ice, which was installed under a tight deadline and can take years to perfect. Since the Olympics, the 6,600-seat venue has hosted the 2006 World Fencing Championships and the 2009 European Indoor Championships in Athletics, as well as numerous fairs and exhibitions.

Nanjing Sports Park

china.jpgAt a cost of $287 million, the Nanjing Sports Park was built in China's Jiangsu province for the China National Games in 2005 and served as a showcase for the Chinese government leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The park includes a 60,000-seat stadium, an 11,000-seat arena, a natatorium that resembles a partially submerged cylinder, a 17-court tennis center, a media center, and outdoor facilities for baseball, softball, hockey, and basketball. According to Populous, "the primary concept of the sports park was to create a "˜people's palace', a multifunctional environment, a combination of world standard sporting facilities with the main stadium as the centerpiece within parkland."

Ascot Racecourse

ascot.jpgEngland's most famous racecourse was founded in 1711 by Queen Anne and closed for 20 months of redevelopment beginning in September 2004. When it reopened in time for the Royal Meeting in June 2006, the venue featured a new grandstand with a 400-yard-long, multi-tiered galleria, 40 internal bridges, and 270 private boxes. The design was driven by Populous' idea that Ascot was more than a place to watch horseracing. "Horseracing attracts a very mobile crowd," designer Rod Sheard told reporters. "The race itself lasts only a couple of minutes, but this is a place for promenading, to see and be seen." Unfortunately, the view from parts of the ground level of the grandstand for those who were there to see the races was obstructed. While this initially drew harsh criticism, Sheard and his colleagues rectified the problem one year later by installing terracing units to improve sightlines.

Wimbledon Centre Court

wimbledon.jpgFor the past three years, Populous has been busy renovating the facilities for the Wimbledon Championships. The firm has increased the seating capacity at Centre Court from 13,800 to 15,000, widening each seat in the process. The hydraulically operated retractable roof, made of steel trusses that support translucent fabric, will be operational when the 2009 championships begin next week. Sheard, who refers to the roof as "the umbrella," came up with the idea for a folding fabric roof out of necessity; the Centre Court stadium is hemmed in and was never designed to support a roof, so there's no place to roll a non-folding roof when open.

University of Phoenix Stadium

phoenix.jpgPopulous teamed with architect Peter Eisenman to design University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, home of the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. The stadium, which opened in 2006 and hosted Super Bowl XLII in February 2008, was the first in North America to feature a retractable, natural grass playing surface. This innovative design enables non-football events to be held in the stadium while the grass field, which can be rolled outside, receives the sunlight it needs to grow. The 63,000-seat venue has a retractable roof covered with translucent fabric and was the only stadium in North America to make Business Week's list of world-class sports stadiums.

2012 Summer Olympics

london-olympics.jpgPopulous' work will be on prominent display at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The firm was chosen to lead the design effort for the facilities, including the main stadium. London Games organizers communicated their desire to create facilities that will continue to be used after the Olympics, leading Populous to propose a plan that represents a significant departure from the Bird's Nest built for the Beijing Games. "This is not a stadium that's going to be screaming from the rooftops that it's bigger and more spectacular," Sheard said at the unveiling of the design in 2007. "This is just a cleverer building. This is a cleverer solution." The plan for the main stadium calls for 55,000 temporary seats to be installed on top of 25,000 permanent seats housed in a sunken bowl. The steel structure that supports the temporary seats will be concealed by a porous, translucent fabric wrap, or mural, that will be adorned with flags, images of past Olympic champions, and sponsor logos. A cable-supported roof will cover two-thirds of the seats.

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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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