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Bud Shaw's Guide to the NFL Draft

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The NFL draft is upon us. We know this because Mel Kiper Jr., who has made a comfortable living as a draft guru for ESPN, is fully prepped for what has become an American sports spectacle.


Scouting reports? All in his head. Sharpenened pencils? Whatever for? Key to the men's room? Pffft. Save that for the sissies.


It seems only fair that if we know everything about the draft prospects -- from their Wonderlic test scores to their time in the three-cone agility run to the size of their hands -- that we should know even more than is necessary about the face of the draft himself.


For one thing, Kiper doesn't go to the rest room once the draft begins until it ends each day. Ever.

The NFL draft is an exercise in TMI -- too much information -- and now I feel I've done my part in sharing that bathroom scouting report on Kiper.

I'm not sure when the draft reached its information tipping point. But it was definitely long after 1946, when the Washington Redskins chose UCLA back Cal Rossi as their first round pick. He was the ninth player taken overall.

The only problem? Rossi was just a junior and ineligible for the draft at the time.

Embarrassed, the Redskins took a full year to recover from their blunder. They chose Rossi again the following year. That's when they found out Rossi had no intentions of playing pro football.

Draft Lesson No. 1: Always do your homework.

Now homework on NFL draft prospects is a year-long cram, and nobody hooks up the caffeine IV and hits the library quite like ol' Mel.

It was during a recent interview on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption that Kiper verified he does not use the men's room once the draft begins.

This year the draft is a three-day affair for the first time with only the opening round in prime-time Thursday night. The second and third rounds go Friday. Rounds four through seven on Saturday. In the previous format, the first day of the draft could stretch 10 or 11 hours. Not even one bathroom visit?

Kiper explained on PTI that he did take a lavatory break one year—but never again. He said it took him two or three picks to get his enthusiasm level back to where it needed to be.

What was he doing in there? Using the facilities or giving blood? For the sake of his kidneys, couldn't ESPN station a nurse outside the men's room to hand him a sugar cookie on his way out?

A three-day draft instead of two seems a good opportunity for Kiper to strike an endorsement deal.

"Got a lot to do and can't afford to leave your work station? This is Mel Kiper Jr. for Depends."

Or, "This is Mel Kiper Jr. for Just Catheters."

Kiper has become an American sports institution right along with the draft he covers. This is his 28th year. It's the 75th year for the NFL.

He started preparing scouting reports as a teenager and would take them to the Baltimore Colts' training camp and hand them out.

There are still people who don't accept them in the intended spirit.

In NFL circles, one famous Kiper-related eruption made the volcano in Iceland that shut down air traffic all over Europe look like a puff of cigarette smoke.

It came from Colts' president Bill Tobin, who objected vigorously to Kiper's on-air criticism of his organization for passing up quarterback Trent Dilfer in the 1994 draft.

"Who is Mel Kiper?" Tobin railed. "He's never been a player, he's never been a coach, he's never been a scout, he's never been an administrator and all of a sudden he's an expert. He has no more credentials to do what he's doing than my neighbor, and my neighbor's a postman."

Here's another anti-Kiper rant from Tobin:

Kiper is part of why the draft has become such a televised spectacle. He doesn't use note cards. His projections might not be any better than your neighbor the mailman, but his memory bank on players is encyclopedic.

Like Watching Someone Read the Phone Book

The NFL unintentionally helped make Kiper the industry he's become. Teams can't let the average fan inside their draft preparations. They're protecting state secrets as far as they're concerned, trying to purposely mislead their competition about their intentions.

So Kiper and the draftniks who've followed are the conduits to the hungry fans dying for information on the players they convince themselves are crucial to their team's success. So we know why Kiper is big. But he alone can't account for the viewer ratings jumping 60 percent over the past handful of years.

The event that became his vehicle to fame moved into Radio City Music Hall in 2006 and just keeps growing.

Back in 1980, when ESPN chief Chet Simmons approached NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle about televising the draft, Rozelle thought he was joking.

"Why would you want to do that?" Rozelle asked.

ESPN's Chris Berman, on a conference call a few years ago, referred to the draft in that context to reading "the Manhattan phone book on TV."

The draft was a blind spot for Rozelle, otherwise a man of vision.

Is it so popular because it feels like Christmas Day to fans? That while they might not get exactly what they wanted, they got enough to close the gap with the rich kid next door?

Is it because there is no real scoreboard to ruin the day for the fans of the lesser teams who make their selections from the cream of the crop at the top of the draft?

Do people watch just to see if Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis is going to go even further off the deep end one of these years and draft, say, every member of his lookalike band, Sha Na Na?

Is it because people see it as just another reality show where 20-somethings either hit the jackpot or sit on camera trying to look calm while their stock falls through the floor, as it did for Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn a few years ago?

Is it because the NFL is so popular it could draw a crowd for Cat Flag Football if it slapped its logo on it and ESPN bought the TV rights?

It's for all of those reasons. It's certainly not because all the scouting, probing, measuring and testing has made drafting players such a sure thing.

Busts

Two years ago, ESPN.com released its list of the Top 50 Draft Busts.

Having lived in Cleveland since 1991, I was surprised to find only three Browns on that list. It seems as if there have been three worthy candidates a year.


No. 8 on the list was Mike Junkin, a Duke product drafted fifth overall in 1987. He was trumpeted to Browns fans as "a mad dog in a meat market." Not so much.


No. 19: Quarterback Tim Couch of Kentucky. Joining the expansion Browns in 1999 as the No. 1 overall pick, he spent most of his time in Cleveland being treated like a pinata.


No: 34: Craig Powell, a linebacker from Ohio State. He was drafted in the first round in 1995. Browns' owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore after that season. So poor Craig Powell was considered a bust in two cities.

The Browns' draft pick that stands out to me, though, was a fifth-round selection in 2001. His name was Jeremiah Pharms.

With all the scouting tools at their disposal, the Browns overlooked one small detail: Pharms had been under investigation for a drug-related shooting in the Seattle area for almost a year while he played his final season at the University of Washington. In the Browns' defense, University of Washington head coach Rick Neuheisel said he had no idea Pharms was in trouble. (For that crime at least. Pharms had a history of issues.)

Two weeks after the Browns drafted him and his maturity and high character were cited, police arrested him and he went to jail.

Bust? Or just busted?

I'll let Mel Kiper Jr. make the call.

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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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