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What Exactly Is Curling?

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Olympic curling has taken to the ice, but if you're like most Americans, this writer included, the game is a bit baffling. Here's a quick, stripped-down primer on everyone's favorite icy alternative to shuffleboard. It doesn't cover anywhere near all of the game's nuances, but it should give you enough info that you can enjoy watching an end or two. (And yes, you'll learn what an "end" is.)

What's the object of curling?

Good question. First, let's get a bit of the jargon down. The playing surface in curling is called "the sheet." Sheet dimensions can vary, but they're usually around 150 feet long by about 15 feet wide. The sheet is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to "curl," or deviate from a straight path. These water droplets are known as "pebble."

At each end there's a target that looks like a big bullseye. These targets are known as "the houses." The center of the house is known as the "button." Basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

What's with the sweeping?

curling-usa

Remember how we talked about the pebble of ice droplets that the rock has to travel across? When the stone touches the pebble, there's friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the house.

Obviously, that friction is not always a good thing, but sweeping helps combat the problem. The sweeping motion raises the temperature of the ice by a degree or two, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone and keeps the stone moving in a straight line.

What about all the yelling?

Each curling team has four members: a lead, a second, a vice-skip (or third), and a skip. Each "end" (curling's equivalent of a baseball inning) involves both teams shooting (or "delivering") eight stones at the house, with players delivering two stones apiece.

When the lead, second, and vice are delivering their stones, the skip stands at the opposite end of the sheet (near the house) and uses his broom to give his teammates a target for their deliveries. Once the stone has been delivered and is a "running stone" (that is, one that's still sliding), the skip then yells to the sweepers to let them know when to sweep and how hard. When the skip shoots the last two stones of a team's end, the vice takes over calling the shots.

How do you keep score?

In each end, both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all 16 stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that's closest to the button (center of the house) effectively "wins" the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team's closest stone. Since the team that won the end always has at least one stone that's closer to the button than their opponent, the team always scores at least one point, and could score up to eight points.

If neither team manages to keep a stone in the house during an end, it's known as a "blank end," and no points are scored. Olympic curling matches last for 10 ends unless there is a tie, in which case it goes to extra-ends, curling's equivalent of overtime.

What's the hammer?

As you might have guessed from reading about the scoring system, throwing the last stone of an end is a huge advantage. If you've got the last stone, you can always try to knock the other team's best stone away from the button. If a team holds the last stone for an end, it "has the hammer," and should probably be able to score some points. If the team without the hammer manages to somehow stymie their opponent and score points, it's called a "stolen end." Whichever team fails to score points in an end gets the hammer for the next end.

So is there strategy involved?

curling-russiaYes, there's all sorts of strategy in curling. Let's say your team doesn't have the hammer. You're at a huge disadvantage when it comes to scoring points, so you might opt to play defensively. To do that, you might just deliver a number of "guards," or rocks that will sit in front of the house and provide an obstacle for the other team's stones. Alternatively, guards can be used to defend your stones that are already in the house from being knocked out by the other team's "takeout" shots.

The third major type of curling shot is the "draw," a shot that's meant to avoid other stones and come to rest in the house. Generally, a draw is used with the hope of scoring points, a guard is thrown to protect the house or a stone that's already been thrown, and a takeout is used defensively.

May I see a clip?

Yes you may. Here's a video from the 2006 Gold Medal game:

This post was originally published in 2010.

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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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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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