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Woody's Winners, NFL Week 8

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NFL WEEK EIGHT

What I've learned through seven weeks of NFL play this season:

  • Buffalo will win a few games before the season's over
  • Oakland will become a contender over the next three years
  • Teams have figured out how to beat New Orleans
  • Dallas has leadership issues and needs veteran help
  • It's no fun for anyone when games are blacked out
  • Tennessee is good enough to reach the Super Bowl
  • Any team can beat any other team on any given week

There are no particularly potent slices of brain food on that list, I know. But you have to admit, it's been a wild season thus far in several regards. Last week's 7-7 record brings me to 56-48 overall, but I know I'll ruin things with the number of upsets I've predicted for Week 8. When the games pan out, I'll either look like a fool, or I'll look like a lucky fool. Let's find out:

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Green Bay (4-3) @ N.Y. Jets (5-1)

The New Meadowlands will be awash in a Sea of Green this Sunday as the Packers and Jets compare notes on how lucky they both are to have “moved on” from the Brett Favre days. New York has only allowed 12 QB hits this season, compared to 20+ for every other NFL team, so the Pack pass rush won’t have much effect. Both teams sport capable pass defenses, but Gotham can run the ball, and plans to do so early and often to control the line of scrimmage. If Aaron Rodgers can toss a few aerial bombs to keep the 747s at bay, he just might be able to shut down the airport. Too bad George Kennedy is a Jets fan.

Woody’s Winner: New York

FACT: The Packers have never beaten the Jets on the road.

Please click "more" to see my picks for the dozen other games scheduled for Week 8!

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Denver (2-5) @ San Francisco (1-6)

The last thing both the Broncos and 49ers needed at this point in the season was a distraction. Denver gave up 59 points last week – at home – while San Francisco’s QB went down in a loss to punchless (and previously winless) Carolina. So let’s send these two teams across the Atlantic to London to play at Wembley Stadium in front of a bunch of fans yelling things like “Sissies wear pads!” and “Wot’s up with the funny-shaped ball?” The Golden Gate guys are just trying to stay afloat, while the Mile High men could still salvage their season. That glimmer of hope, and the anger of last week’s embarrassing show, will make all the difference for Denver.

Woody’s Winner: Denver

FACT: In 1989, the 49ers shellacked the Broncos 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV.

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Jacksonville (3-4) @ Dallas (1-5)

The Cowboys’ offense has racked up plenty of yardage this season, but mistakes regularly keep them out of the end zone. The solution is to crank out a few long plays, and QB Jon Kitna will have that opportunity against a Jaguars defense that has allowed more 20+ yard pass plays (28 of them) than any other team in the NFL. While Cowboys Stadium is gorgeous, the home team is 0-3 there this season, and it’s sure deafening when 100,000 fans boo in unison. As long as the Silver can contain RB Maurice Jones-Drew, they have no reason to lose this game. But that hasn’t mattered so far this season, has it? Still…

Woody’s Winner: Dallas

FACT: Jacksonville’s QBs have thrown more interceptions (11) than anyone else in the AFC.

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Miami (3-3) @ Cincinnati (2-4)

The notion that this Flipper-vs.-Fluffy matchup involves two middle-of-the-road teams all but guarantees an exciting game. Both squads hope to recover from Week 7 games that they could have (and should have) won. With a tough second-half schedule looming, the Bengals are happy to be playing in the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium. But Miami is 3-0 on the road in 2010, and they’d just as soon keep that streak alive. In a surprise, the salt-water Dolphins will thrive in the muddy Ohio River this Sunday.

Woody’s Winner (in a mild upset): Miami

FACT: Since the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the Bengals are 3-12 against the Dolphins. Cincinnati has, however, won the teams’ two most recent matchups (in 2004 and 2007).

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Carolina (1-5) @ St. Louis (3-4)

Some questioned how much St. Louis had improved following Week 5’s debacle in Detroit, but the team’s other three losses have come by a combined 7 points. Carolina comes to town with the league’s lowest-scoring offense, and it looked like they went all-out to garner a 3-point win vs. the hapless 49ers last week. Despite having surgery on a broken ring finger earlier this week, Rams RB Steven Jackson vows to play in this game. He won’t put a Super Bowl ring on that finger this year, but with that sort of determination, it may not take long.

Woody’s Winner: St. Louis

FACT: The Panthers have won their last four games against the St. Louis Rams (including a 2003 playoff matchup).

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Washington (4-3) @ Detroit (1-5)

Last season, the Lions squeaked by the 'Skins 19-14 at Ford Field, but that was against QB Jason Campbell. His replacement, Donovan McNabb, has torched the Detroit secondary in his career, completing 50 of 68 passes (73.5%) for 6 TDs without an interception. His skill set should allow D.C. to outlast Motown, provided they don’t fall behind too far. QB Matthew Stafford makes his heralded return for the Cats after a Week 1 injury, and had a bye week to prepare, but is he up to speed? I picked the Lions to win once this season, and they did. They’re slightly favored here, but I’m no fool.

Woody’s Winner (in a mild upset): Washington

FACT: The Redskins are the only NFC team that hasn’t attempted to “go for it” on fourth-down this season; not surprising, since they’re worst in the NFC on third down (converting only 25 percent).

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Buffalo (0-6) @ Kansas City (4-2)

These long-time rivals faced off in the 1966 AFL Championship, in which KC earned a spot in the very first Super Bowl (where they were unceremoniously disposed of by Vince Lombardi’s Packers). The Chiefs hope to tan some Buffalo hide when the Bills rumble into Arrowhead Stadium in Week 8. Kansas City feasts on the NFL’s dregs, with all 4 of their wins coming against teams with a combined 8-20 record. The Buffs have hung tough against some of the AFC’s best (notably New England and Baltimore) and if their defense ever shows up, they’ll win a game this season. But not this week.

Woody’s Winner: Kansas City

FACT: The Chiefs’ stellar running game averages a league-leading 176.5 yards per game.

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Tennessee (5-2) @ San Diego (2-5)

Fifty years ago, these two franchises (then in Houston and Los Angeles) met in the AFL’s first title game. The Oilers won, proving that petroleum had an advantage over electricity back in 1960. It’s 2010 now, however, and the buzzword is “hybrid.” In the NFL, this means that, in order to win, you have to play defense AND run the ball. (Just ask Dallas, Detroit, and Denver.) RB Chris Johnson and the Titan offense has picked up steam to become the second-highest-scoring team in the NFL, and that’s advantage enough for them to leave the Chargers looking for a place to plug themselves in.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Tennessee

FACT: The Chargers last lost to the Titans franchise in 1992 (when they were still the Houston Oilers).

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Minnesota (2-4) @ New England (5-1)

I’ve heard a few fans grumble that Brett Favre rises slowly from hits – and feigns aches after games – just to make his return the following week appear all the more amazing. A twice-broken heel can’t feel good for anybody, and while the league’s oldest starting QB is still a tough competitor, some time off might be best for Minnesota. The Vikes do need to stir up some excitement (whether it’s orchestrated or not), but they’ve got to win games along the way. Will this be the week that Favre’s record of 315 consecutive games comes screeching to a halt? It matters not to the powerful Patriots, where business as usual will result in a victory at Foxboro.

Woody’s Winner: New England

FACT: The Patriots’ defense is last in the league in opponent pass completion percentage (70) and opponent third-down conversion percentage (49).

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Seattle (4-2) @ Oakland (3-4)

Oakland is 1-2 against the NFC West this season, and finishes off the division when the Seahawks fly south this Sunday. After scoring only 9 points in Week 6, the Raiders shocked everyone last week by hanging 59 points on the Broncos. They won’t have that kind of success against Seattle’s solid run defense, but may have to worry about their own. The one-two punch of Justin Forsett and Marshawn Lynch will take the pressure off QB Matt Hasselbeck. Black-clad fans will sit with mouths agape by the time the ‘Hawks fly off over the horizon with eye patches in their beaks, swatches of silver in their talons, and a “W” where it counts.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Seattle

FACT: The home team has won the 9 previous games in this matchup.

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Tampa Bay (4-2) @ Arizona (3-3)

So far this season, the Cardinals have won one week and lost the next. They were defeated at Seattle last week, so it’s “win” week, right? Not so fast. The return of Arizona WR Steve Breaston should help rookie QB Max Hall, but pass defense is one thing (perhaps the one thing) at which the Buccaneers excel. The Redbirds haven’t been performing well on either side of the ball, and their inconsistency is bound to catch up with them. I’m predicting that this will happen in Week 8.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Tampa Bay

FACT: The Cardinals have fallen to last in the league in passing yards (172.5) and total yards (237.8) per game.

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Pittsburgh (5-1) @ New Orleans (4-3)

With 3 interceptions and 2 fumbles returned for TDs, opponents have feasted on Saints mistakes this season. The Steelers arrive in town in this contest between the two most recent Super Bowl winners, and they want to add to those numbers in the worst way. Pittsburgh’s powerhouse defense can stop a team’s rushing game in its sleep – which is how Nawlins runs – so they’ll turn their attention to the passing game. Sadly, for the home fans, QB Drew Brees won’t make much of a ruffle in the Steel Curtain.

Woody’s Winner: Pittsburgh

FACT: The Steelers have completed only 86 passes this season (fewest in the NFL) but have averaged 8.7 yards per completion (second-best in the league).

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Houston (4-2) @ Indianapolis (4-2)

In Week 1, the Texans surprised the Colts in Houston, but it will be a tough order to repeat that success this Monday night in Indianapolis. While Peyton Manning’s iron-man streak continues, Indy’s offense has lost several playmakers. The team’s leading RB (Joseph Addai), WR (Austin Collie) and TE (Dallas Clark) are all out. This trio has accounted for 12 of the offense’s 18 TDs this season. The Colts are 8-1 on MNF since 2003, but the luck in their horseshoes might have finally fizzled. If the Texans can control the ball, they’ll prove that their season-opening victory wasn’t just a cow patty.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): Houston

FACT: The Colts have not played in a regular-season overtime game since 2004 (87 consecutive games).

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BYE: Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, N.Y. Giants, Philadelphia.

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Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below, but please be cordial to others; this is all in good fun. Thanks!

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

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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