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The Stupidest Questions in Super Bowl History

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New Orleans, January 1981. My first Super Bowl.

I'm trying to ask questions of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Charlie Smith at the first media availability.

He'd recently broken his jaw, the wires in his mouth standing sentry against solid nourishment and reducing his speech to what under different circumstances would pass as beginner's ventriloquism.

(Confession: Bourbon Street overmatched me on my first night in town. My condition was probably worse than Smith's. To be fair all these years later, he may have spoken perfectly understandable King's English, but to my ears he sounded like a man speaking underwater.)

Smith was an important part of the Eagles team I covered for the Philadelphia Daily News. He'd been injured in the final regular season game and had missed the postseason to that point.

Would he practice? Could he play? How would he keep up his strength?

He tried his best to answer. But in a crowd three deep with the noise of my first Super Bowl media experience exploding around us, I looked at my notebook after 30 minutes. I had written down exactly one sentence.

"I can't eat meat."

That was Super Bowl XV, nearly 30 years ago. Since then, the annual Super Bowl tradition known as Media Day—it happens again today in Miami—has come to represent the NFL at its silliest and smartest.

Proof There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

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It's the place where a Japanese reporter once asked of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, "Tell me, why do they call you Boomer?" (Well, they don't actually. That would be Boomer Esiason, the Cincinnati quarterback.)

It's where someone asked Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "What's your relationship with the football?" To which Salave'a said, "I'd say it's strictly platonic."

Asked how he got psyched to play in big games, Buffalo's great running back Thurman Thomas sniffed, "I read the newspapers and look at all the stupid questions you all ask."

Not sure if that was the Super Bowl where Thomas lost two fumbles in a 30-13 loss or the one where he couldn't find his helmet and missed the first few plays in a 37-24 loss.

Media Day is where Downtown Julie Brown, formerly of MTV, asked Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, "What are you going to wear in the game Sunday?"

Where Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner was asked, "Do you believe in voodoo and can I have a lock of your hair?"

Where Denver running back Detron Smith was asked, "What size panties do you think you'd wear?"

Where a St. Louis player found himself pondering the grammatical conundrum contained within the question, "Is Ram a noun or a verb?"

An urban legend grew that Washington quarterback Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, was asked, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"

(Not true. ESPN.com cleared that up in a recent story. The reporter knew Williams. He also knew Williams was tired of hearing about race. So the question was more along the lines of, "Doug, obviously you've been a black quarterback all along. When did it suddenly become important?")

Even so, right about now my guess is you see Thurman Thomas' point.

But here's the beauty of what the National Football League is all about. Many of the questions that make annual Dumbest Super Bowl Questions lists are staged by non-sports writers. They are ridiculous, purposely over-the-top and all part of a circus the league encourages to fill as many rings as possible on the day that signals the revving of the Super Bowl publicity machine.

So you get Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXXII being asked, "Are you going to listen to Stevie Wonder perform at halftime?"

(Sure thing. What else would he be doing at halftime except shushing the coaches so he could hear "Don't You Worry About a Thing"?)

The NFL gets it as no other sports league gets it. For instance, it subjects its players to three days of madness at the Super Bowl and fines them if they don't show up.

One year, a 10-year-old ''reporter" identifying himself as Sparky Mortimer walked around asking questions of players and coaches on behalf of David Letterman. Who's going to turn down a 10-year-old? Not even Thurman Thomas.

A Day in the Life of a Serious Sports Writer

The free-for-all of Media Day is the worst day in a serious sports writer's year, but if you're there for the spectacle there's nothing quite like it.

Why is it the worst day annually for sports writers covering the NFL? Because it has so little to do with football and it offers such insurmountable roadblocks to coherent conversation.

To give this proper context, I should say that any circle of reporters at the Super Bowl is comprised of any number of agendas. One might be working on the quarterback's life story. Another might be looking for a quote on how the quarterback's team will deal with the opposing pass rush. Another might be asking something that gets him on TV.

So it usually goes like this:

Reporter No. 1: "You say you were poor growing up?"
QB: "Yes, all I got for Christmas one year was an orange."
Reporter No. 2: "Should we expect to see you throw downfield early?"
QB: "I'm not going to give away the game plan."
Reporter No. 1: "What kind of orange? Did you eat it or decorate it?"
QB: "What?"
Reporter No. 2: "What do you see when you look at their secondary?"

An ESPN.com story from this time last year recounted one tedious conversation that occurred 10 years ago between a reporter and the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who had just told the story of a harrowing experience a month earlier when his car flipped and he thought he might die.

"I called on the name of Jesus," Bruce said. "That's the name that I know saves me. And when I did that, I knew everything would be fine."

Said a reporter (for some reason), "Did you say 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?' Or just 'Jesus?'"

Bruce: "It was one Jesus," he said. "That's all it takes."

Good to get that cleared up.

plunkett-SII wasn't there for that tortured exchange. But I was in the group of reporters at Super Bowl XV when Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett was asked a question that makes every Super Bowl list. And this one wasn't staged by a TV or radio personality. As sports writers we have to own this one.

Plunkett had just answered a question about his parents. He spoke in low, respectful tones about growing up in a special needs household, that his mother was blind and that his father, also blind, had passed away.

Five more topics came and went after Plunkett mentioned his parents. A reporter from the Philadelphia press corps, a guy I once worked with at another paper, jumped in. He was a columnist. He wasn't there to write about the blitz. Plunkett's family situation was far more intriguing to him.

He tried two or three times to ask a follow-up. But he kept losing the floor to reporters who timed their questions better or who were close enough to make eye contact with Plunkett, or who simply spoke up louder.

Finally, he forced his way back into the interview.

"Jimmy, Jimmy, I want to make sure I have this right. Was it dead mother, blind father or blind mother, dead father?"

You can find that kind of sensitivity in Don Rickles' stand-up, but not many other places.

The Original Sports Hostage Situation

SB-44Long ago, the NFL saw the crossover marketing potential in welcoming not just newspapers with NFL teams in their cities. But E!, Letterman, Leno, Comedy Central, MTV, every big national radio show.

In the media center, Radio Row goes on for a quarter mile. It's a city unto itself, a media "Babble-on." It wasn't always so. The Super Bowl became a media event after "Broadway" Joe Namath led the Jets to a milestone upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. It became a cultural linchpin because the NFL has been pure genius in the staging of the week leading up to the game. [Image courtesy of Flickr user snblogs.]

It sets aside Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for player interviews. After that, the players are off limits.

Try coming into town Friday for a Sunday game as a member of the media, and you've not only missed the players but maybe even a room at the NFL headquarters hotel (they demand a four-night minimum).

Come in time for the player interviews and you spend almost a week previewing one game. A friend once called it "the original sports hostage situation." The NFL would have it no other way.

Sometimes the players and the game even prove worthy of all the attention.

When Dallas linebacker Hollywood Henderson famously said Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the "c" and the "a," Bradshaw responded by throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Cowboys.

If the drumroll gets louder with players working off nervous energy by talking trash, all the better for the league. But it's not necessary.

The marvel of what the NFL has fashioned over the past XLIV years is that the game is almost beside the point.

Norman Vincent Peale once said, "If Jesus were alive today, he'd be at the Super Bowl."

In what capacity, Peale didn't say.

But it's an intriguing thought, if only because it could explain the question asked of New England quarterback Tom Brady at a Super Bowl not long ago.

"Tom," came a voice in the crowd, "what is your purpose in life?"

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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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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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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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