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World Cup: The Seven Sins of Soccer

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The 2010 FIFA World Cup begins June 11th in South Africa. The whole world is watching! To get into the mood, here are some stories you may not know of the seamier side of the wholesome sport of football.


Relative to the number of players worldwide, soccer is surprisingly low in drug scandals. This only makes for bigger headlines when it happens. Diego Maradona is considered one of the greatest players of all time. The Argentine footballer started in international leagues when he was only 16 years old. He played in four World Cup tournaments. Maradona was suspended for 15 months in 1991 for cocaine use. In the 1994 World Cup played in the US, he failed a drug test after the match with Nigeria, his second game of the tournament, and was sent home. The culprit in the World Cup dismissal was ephedrine, which Maradona blamed on an energy drink. In recent years, health problems including a heart attack spurred the player to give up cocaine. Maradona is coaching Argentina's team going into the 2010 World Cup.


The team from England went to Colombia for a match just ahead of the 1970 World Cup tournament in Mexico. After a visit to a jewelry store attached to their hotel, players Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton were questioned by police about a missing bracelet. A witness said she had seen Moore take the bracelet, but the players were allowed to go to Ecuador for a game. Moore was arrested for shoplifting and  jailed when the team returned to Colombia. England was in danger of World Cup disaster if Moore couldn't make it to Mexico on time, so diplomatic pressure was applied to attain Moore's release. The team made the World Cup, but lost to West Germany in the quarterfinals. Many years later, evidence surfaced that police knew the bracelet thief was female, and the player had been set up.


Although there have been many accusations of cheating in the World Cup, one particularly egregious case stands out because so many people saw it -except for the one person who mattered. The 1986 match between Argentina and England went down in history for a goal Diego Maradona made with the "Hand of God", meaning he used his hand, but the inexperienced referee didn't see it and allowed the goal. Argentina won that quarterfinal game. The second goal Maradona scored in that same game was later called the "goal of the century".


Alcohol is not considered a sin in soccer; but who gets to sell beer to the fans can lead to a huge fight. The 2006 World Cup was held in Germany, the land of beer. Anheuser-Busch, then a US company, paid $40 million dollars for the rights to sell beer exclusively at the World Cup venues. German brewers and beer drinkers had a problem with that.

Simply put, Germans hate Budweiser. Weeks before the inaugural games kicked off the Cup, Germans were furious at the prospect of having to drink what they refer to as "dishwater" at stadiums. Germans even set up a Web site with an image of an American Eagle vomiting beer to lampoon the American brewer and express their disgust.

Budweiser gave in just a little to allow one German company, Bitburger, to sell beer in the stadiums, but they were restricted to unmarked cups. However, they refused to allow spectators to wear logos from other beer companies, which caused a first-round game to see half the crowd in their underwear, as a Dutch beer company had sold shorts in the team's colors to their fans. Thousands were asked to remove the logo, which meant removing their shorts.


Why would anyone throw a World Cup game? Fans couldn't believe what they saw in the second group game between Argentina and Peru at the 1978 tournament in Argentina. Argentina needed at least a four-goal lead to advance; otherwise Brazil would go to the quarterfinals. Peru, which had been doing well in the tournament up to that point, fell apart in a spectacular fashion. The military junta that ruled Argentina at the time called itself the the National Reorganization Process. This dictatorship was responsible for the disappearance of thousands of opponents. There were rumors of threats or payoffs or both, possibly involving Peruvian sports and government officials more than the players. In any case, spectators noticed that the Peruvian team seemed terrified throughout the game. The fact that Peru's goalkeeper, Ramon Quiroga, had family in Argentina only added to the speculation. Argentina eventually beat the Netherlands in overtime to win the cup.


Restricting young adult athletes from sex seems like a recipe for trouble, but it was standard operating procedure for a long time in soccer. In the early days of the World Cup, teams would be sequestered for two months before and during the tournament. The very first World Cup tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930. Olympic gold medalist Andrés Mazali was the goaltender goalkeeper for the home team, but was suspended for breaking curfew to make a date with his wife. Uruguay went on to win the cup nevertheless that year. In 2006, coach Oleg Blokhin offered players on the Ukrainian team the chance to have conjugal visits with their wives as an incentive, but only if the team made it to the semifinals. Ukraine lost to Italy, and just barely missed the semifinals. Of course, once they were out of the tournament, there was no need to abstain.

Even today, some teams must get specific clearance to have sex in the days leading up to the World Cup. Argentina has the OK this year, but England's manager Fabio Capello has limited player's access to wives and girlfriend to only the day after games. The team from Brazil will be allowed sex on any day they don't play.


Soccer violence on the field ranks well below hockey or rugby, but more people see it when it happens. I watched the final World Cup game in 2006 between Italy and France. An estimated 715 million other people also witnessed the altercation between France's Zinédine Zidane and Italy's Marco Materazzi. The two had exchanged words on the field when Zidane suddenly rammed his head into Materazzi's chest, in full view of the global television audience. The ensuing penalties allowed Italy to take the game and the cup. Zidane was ejected from the game, but went on to further fame as an internet meme.

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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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Opening Ceremony
These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:


Opening Ceremony

To this:


Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]