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Double Trouble: The Two U.S. Olympic Hockey Teams of 1948

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Have you been watching the Olympic ice hockey tournament and cheering for the American team? Be thankful you haven't been forced to choose which U.S. team to root for. American fans faced just such a conundrum at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when two hockey squads showed up for the games and claimed to be the official American squad. Here's a look at how that happened.

The Background

It would be great if the story hinged on some heated rivalry between the two American teams, but the real problem actually stemmed from the sort of horrendous foresight that was fairly common at early Olympics. (A lot of the pre-1950 games were like field day at your grade school, only with worse planning.)

In 1947, the International Ice Hockey Federation decided that the Amateur Athletic Union should no longer be the governing body for ice hockey in the United States and replaced it with the American Hockey Association. It may sound like a trivial detail, but this decision really rankled longtime American Olympic Committee chief Avery Brundage. Brundage was renowned for being a curmudgeonly champion of amateurism, and he vehemently opposed the AHA, which allowed commercial sponsorships and pro players.

It quickly became apparent that Brundage wasn't going to take kindly to an AHA-assembled team playing in the Olympics. However, given the way the Olympic hockey system was organized at the time, these two groups with diametrically opposed philosophies would have to agree on who should represent the U.S.

The Argument

Despite Brundage's irritation, the AHA went ahead and put together a U.S. Olympic team composed of professional players.

Since the International Ice Hockey Federation—the same body that put the AHA in charge of American hockey—was in charge of approving the participating teams in the hockey tournament, everything seemed to be okay.

Not so fast, though. While the AHA team may have had the hockey world's approval, Brundage and the American Olympic Committee had to approve all of the American participants in the games. Brundage refused to approve the AHA's pro team and had the AAU assemble its own all-amateur team to compete for the red, white, and blue.

In retrospect, someone probably should have realized this system was shaky at best, and at this point, things got pretty awkward. Two "official" American teams showed up in St. Moritz ready to play: one amateur squad approved by the Olympic Committee, and one pro team that had the thumbs-up from the governing body of American hockey. Obviously, the Americans couldn't put two teams in the tournament, so tensions between the squads' respective backers started to flare.

The Resolution

If you think you're confused reading this, think about how flummoxed the International Olympic Committee was. As the opening ceremony approached, the IOC decided to simply bar both of the American teams from the tournament. This decision enraged the International Ice Hockey Federation, though, and it looked like the IIHF might just nix the entire tournament to boycott the IOC's choice.

Cooler heads eventually prevailed. The Swiss organizing committee didn't want to see the hockey tournament get cancelled over this squabble, so it agreed to let the professional AHA team play in the tournament. As a consolation prize, the amateur AAU team would get to march in the opening ceremony. This compromise didn't please the IOC, which washed its hands of the whole mess by severing its ties with the tournament.

The Conclusion

When the AHA's American team took the ice, they played like professionals in a tournament full of amateurs. They thumped Poland 23-4 before thrashing Italy 31-1. However, Team USA had a tougher time with the stronger teams and fell to Switzerland and Czechoslovakia in addition to weathering a 12-3 beating from the Canadians. Although the Americans led the tournament in scoring with 86 goals, their 5-3 record was only good enough for fourth place. The Canadian and Czech teams both finished 7-0-1 in the round-robin tournament, but the Canadians took the gold on the strength of a stronger goal differential.

The IOC eventually came back around, too. It agree to let the pro AHA team represent the U.S. as long as the team couldn't win a medal or appear in the tournament's official standings. That's why if you look at the 1948 Winter Olympics ice hockey standings in a record book, the U.S. team is usually listed as a footnote just below the Italian powerhouse that gave up 156 goals en route to an 0-8 record.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
June 21, 2017
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.