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Cricket for Americans!

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Big news! On Monday, England defeated Australia on the famous cricket pitch at Lord's for the first time in 75 years! To put this in perspective, this may actually be bigger than the miraculous Red Sox World Series win in 2004, heralding an end to the 86-year Curse of the Bambino. Maybe.

Anyway, England's win put me in mind of doing a post on cricket, because it is so quintessentially British.

I have actually seen professional cricket: This Memorial Day, whilst my American compatriots were enjoying some good ol' barbecue and the unofficial start of summer, I was celebrating an undefined Bank Holiday at Lord's with some British friends. But despite having sat for three hours "“ the match was a Twenty20 match and therefore the "shorter" variety of the game "“ I'm not entirely sure that I can claim to know anything about cricket.

I was primarily at a loss due to the astonishingly sportsmanlike behavior of my fellow cricket fans. I come from the Red Sox school of sports viewing, in which watching sports is nearly as tiring as playing it and, win or lose, someone's going to set a car on fire afterwards. Here, though, people clapped whenever anything happened, regardless of whose team it benefited "“ polite, sure, but confusing as hell. I cast my lot with Surrey "“ good move, since they ultimately trounced Middlesex "“ but had virtually no idea that they had won until the very end of the game (this was also due in no small part to the very large specimen of British manhood sitting directly in front of me, his great jug head just the right size to entirely obscure the pitch).

Given the fact that actually watching cricket left me no more enlightened than before, I turned to that font of all knowledge, the Internet. Here's what I found:

First: What is cricket?

Cricket, being a game of interminable length involving a "bat" and a ball, is a lot like baseball. Except that it's not. The similarity clearly derives from the action of striking the ball with the bat-like object, but cricket takes place in the center of a large field and the concept of a "foul" or even a "strike" doesn't enter.

Basically, cricket works like this: There are two teams of 11 players, with two on-field umpires. The field is oval shaped, with a strip of dry land around 22 yards long in the center. Positioned at either end of this strip are the wickets, basically three wooden poles called "stumps" stood up next to one another, with two wooden pieces called "bails" resting on top of them.

The batter stands in front of one of these wickets, which serve as targets for the bowler (basically, the pitcher); the bowling team has all 11 of its men on the field, in various in-field and out-field positions.


Two guys from the batting team are on the pitch at one time, the striker and the non-striker, positioned at opposite ends of the pitch; the pitcher, called in cricket the "bowler," stands just beyond the wickets at the non-striker end of the pitch. He winds up and hurls the little wooden ball toward the striker, who is the batter in action. The striker's job is to hit the ball away from his wickets. Runs are scored for each time the batters are able to run back and forth between the wickets after the ball is hit; if the batter hits the ball outside of playing area, but it touches the ground first, that's four runs. If it sails outside of the playing area without hitting the ground "“ in real out-of-the-park home run style "“ then that's six runs.

An inning is over when 10 guys from the batting team have been gotten out; getting "out" can happen any number of ways, but can include being bowled (when the bowler hits the wickets) or caught (where the struck ball is caught by a fielder or a bowler before it hits the ground). The two teams then switch at the end of the inning, the bowling team batting and the batting team bowling.

In a test match, there is no predetermined time limit to an inning, which is why cricket can go on forever (in these newfangled Twenty20 matches, thank god, there is). The only time limit in test match cricket is five days to complete the whole game; the longest match on record was what is called a "timeless test," which, just like it sounds, has no time limit, and it lasted 10 days.

There are a lot of other, much more complicated rules and strategery and obscure terminology (flipper, googly, tonk, etc.) but I'm not going to get into them here. Suffice it to say, batters try to score runs while the bowling team tries to bowl them out. The winner at the end of day (or five days) is the team with the most runs. And that's cricket!

Cricket players have bad luck: Bizarre injuries off the cricket pitch

In cricket, you don't necessarily get the same spectacular bone-breaking collisions and slides that you get in baseball "“ but from the cursory research I've done, cricket players are more likely to be injured in weird ways off the pitch than on:

"¢ In March 2008, an all-round player for Geelong (that's Australia) was out of commission after injuring his knee "“ putting on his pants.

"¢ British tabloid The Sun dubbed cricketer Chris Lewis "The Prat Without a Hat" after he shaved his head during a tour of the West Indies and suffered severe heatstroke.

"¢ A Sussex player was out for a match after a teammate playfully squeezed his shoulder and injured it.

"¢ Player Chris Old missed a Test Match when he bruised his rib in a particularly violent sneeze.

"¢ Derek Pringle ruled himself out of a Test Match after injuring his back writing a letter "“ the chair he was sitting in collapsed.

"¢ And last, but certainly not least, when English captain Ted Dexter's Jaguar ran out of gas, he tried to push it back into his garage; he lost control of the car and ended up pinned to a gate under it, with a broken leg.

Scandal "“ it's just not cricket

Just like any major sport, cricket has its own scandals. In May, Chris "The Prat Without a Hat" Lewis was sentenced to 13 years in prison for smuggling 7 pounds of cocaine, worth £140,000, in his cricket bag (he was also carrying what prosecutors dubbed his "manbag," a Prada purse). He said he thought it was orange juice mix. Giving evidence during the trial, Lewis and his co-conspirator Chad Kimon each claimed that the other had set him up.

This wasn't the only time that cricket has seen players involved in recreational drugs: In 2001, five South African players were caught smoking some celebratory pot after a win in the West Indies. Cricket has also had its run-ins with doping, not unlike its distant American cousin. In 2006, two Pakistani cricketers were banned from the game for two years and one year respectively after testing positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone.

Cricket can be tragic

In March of this year, a cricket match was cancelled in Pakistan after Islamic militants ambushed the Sri Lankan cricket team as they made their way by bus, with an armed escort, to the pitch. Seven people died in the attack "“ six of the policemen who were escorting the team and a bus driver "“ while seven cricketers and a coach were injured. International teams have vowed not to return to the country.

Tradition! Tradition!

Cricket is also an opportunity to exercise that famous dry British wit and affection bordering on obsession with tradition.

ashesFor example, the recent England win at Lord's was part of a Test Match series called Ashes, so named because in 1882, Australia beat England for the first time on English ground. The loss prompted an English paper, The Sporting Times, to publish a satirical obituary on the death of English cricket: The body would be cremated and its ashes sent to Australia, the story read. England's quest to beat Australia then became a "quest to regain the ashes." Now, the symbol of Ashes is an urn said to contain the actual ashes of a burnt cricket ball; it's not, however, the Ashes trophy exactly: The urn typically lives at the Marylebone Cricket Club, home of the Lord's pitch, while the actual trophy presented to the winners of the series is a Waterford crystal recreation of the urn.

But in recent years, interest in cricket has apparently waned, so cricket organizers have tried to inject a little life into the sport with the shorter Twenty20 matches and by allowing fancy dress on certain days at certain matches. This has provoked the ire of many an old-time cricket fan (at Lord's, you can spot them by their "egg-and-bacon" "“ yellow and red "“ ties and trilby hats and by, in most cases, their extreme age).

See Also: Highlights from Cricket's Strangest Matches

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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]