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Woody's Winners, NFL Week 9

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NFL WEEK NINE

Apologies for this column being a day late, but I've been focused on doing my part to crank out the next issue of mental_floss magazine. Week 10 brings Thursday Night Football, so we'll be a day early next week (and for the rest of the season). See? It all works out in the end.

Woody chose several upsets last week, and paid for that by posting a pedestrian 5-8 record. Teams I expected to wake up (Dallas, Denver) failed to do so, and those I thought would lie down (Green Bay, San Diego) suddenly came to life. Then, on Monday Night Football, Peyton Manning proved that he can get the ball to any receiver who can catch it. Are you ready for Week 9?

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Tampa Bay (5-2) @ Atlanta (5-2)

The NFC South boasts three five-win teams, and the top two face each other this week for sole possession of the division’s “big kahuna” designation. The Bucs are 3-0 on the road this season, while the Falcons are 3-0 at the Georgia Dome. Save for Atlanta’s victory in New Orleans, neither team has beaten a quality foe this season (owing to an easy first-half schedule). RB LeGarrette Blount has rejuvenated Tampa’s rushing game, but I expect the Blackbird defense to shut him down and pressure QB Josh Freeman, which will let their defenders do what they do best – pick off passes. Dirty, dirty birds.

Woody’s Winner: Atlanta

FACT: Every NFC South team – except the Falcons – appeared in a Super Bowl during the 2000s.

Please click "more" to see my picks for Week 9's other NFL matchups!

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New Orleans (5-3) @ Carolina (1-6)

The Saints have struggled against inferior competition, losing to Arizona in Week 5 and to Cleveland in Week 7. With their bye looming, New Orleans might overlook the Panthers, which would be a mistake. The teams are statistically very similar on defense and with their rushing offense. The difference-maker is QB Drew Brees, who has has completed more passes (234) this season than Carolina has even attempted (228). A win against les Panthères would boost the French to numéro deux in the NFC South. Gagner!

Woody’s Winner: New Orleans

FACT: Since the 1970 AFL/NFL merger, the Saints have lost 170 games – more than any other team.

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Chicago (4-3) @ Buffalo (0-7)

Six of the their final eight games this season are against 2009 playoff teams, so Chicago is well aware of the importance of Bearing down to earn a victory in Week 9. This “home” game for Billy Buffalo is being played 100 miles away in Toronto, where the franchise is 0-2. New head coach Chan Gailey hopes to remedy the fact that the Bisons are the NFL’s only 0-for-2010 team. Grizzly QB Jay Cutler has lost his last three starts, with 1 TD, 5 interception, 19 sacks, and 5 fumbles. If he’s still hibernating, he’ll be in no shape to stop the stampede that may result when Buffalo hoofs it (or is that hooves it?) across his sleepy face.

Woody’s Winner (in a close one): Chicago

FACT: These teams have met each other 10 times in NFL history, and the home team has won 9 of those.

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N.Y. Jets (5-2) @ Detroit (2-5)

The Lions have won two of their last three games. Did I just say that? Wow. Detroit showed some fire – almost confidence – with Matthew Stafford at the helm during last week’s comeback win. Both teams’ strengths seem to feed their opponents’ weaknesses, so special teams may play an important role. Back-to-back wins would change things dramatically for the Honolulu Blue, but the Jets are bound to be angry after being shut out at home last week. A Big Cat in the cargo hold of a 747 could create an exciting scenario, if the kitty can get out of the cage. Luckily for New York, security is tight.

Woody’s Winner: New York.

FACT: Of the Lions’ four wins over the last two seasons (all at home), three of them were blacked out on metro Detroit television, including last week’s victory vs. Washington.

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Miami (4-3) @ Baltimore (5-2)

The combination of a strong defense and a capable running game has allowed these East Coast teams to win more close games than they’ve lost. High scores aren’t predicted here as both offenses rely on two-headed running attacks – Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams of Miami and Ray Rice and Willis McGahee of Baltimore. Expect the Dolphins to arrive in Maryland with one porpoise in mind: whaling on the Ravens. Will they eat crow, or will they eat Crow?

Woody’s Winner: Baltimore

FACT: The Dolphins have won each of their four games on the road.

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New England (6-1) @ Cleveland (2-5)

This matchup places one of the NFL’s most consistent teams over the past decade against one of the most erratic, but Cleveland has shown improvement of late. Their losses have come against strong teams (the Bucs, Chiefs, Ravens, Falcons, and Steelers) and last week’s win at New Orleans put the Browns in a new light. So maybe now they’re the Beiges. The Patriots have underachieved their way to the NFL’s best record, managing to convert an average offensive effort (ranked 19th in yardage) into a league-best 29.3 points per game. New England’s defense needs help, however, and sooner or later, their struggles will cost the Founding Fathers a win. Let’s say sooner.

Woody’s Winner (in a big upset): Cleveland

FACT: The Patriots are 5-1 against the Browns since Cleveland’s return to the NFL in 1999.

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San Diego (3-5) @ Houston (4-3)

The Texans’ hopes of victory in Week 9 hinge squarely on the health of the Chargers’ receiving corps. TE Antonio Gates and WR Malcom Floyd both missed practice this week; otherwise, the meeting between San Diego’s league-best pass offense and Houston’s league-worst pass defense would be a no-brainer prediction. Even if the Electric Ones have trouble sending signals through the air, the one-two RB punch of Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert – along with their solid D – should keep the Texans holed up in the barn.

Woody’s Winner (in an upset): San Diego

FACT: The Chargers are 0-4 on the road this season.

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Arizona (3-4) @ Minnesota (2-5)

The Vikings are struggling, and solutions are being tossed around like salad: Fire coach Brad Childress. Give QB Tavaris Jackson a chance. Let Adrian Peterson run the ball 50 times a game. The truth is that Minnesota’s five losses have been close games against strong teams (the Saints, Dolphins, Jets, Packers, and Patriots). Randy Moss’ departure has fueled more discussion, but the Purple are not a bad team, and they’ll prove it this week against Arizona. The Vikes’ ace-in-the-hole is still QB Brett Favre. Despite dealing with a broken foot and stitches in his chin, he’ll find a way to shuffle the Cards.

Woody’s Winner: Minnesota

FACT: Arizona and Minnesota were the two teams that fell victim to New Orleans in last season’s NFC playoffs.

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N.Y. Giants (5-2) @ Seattle (4-3)

The Giants are all about ball control and yardage – they’ve gained more yards and held their opponents to fewer yards than any team in the NFC. On the other coast, the Seahawks’ offensive struggles aren’t going to improve with replacement QB Charlie Whitehurst, who’s never thrown a pass in a regular-season game. The G-Men will have their way with the ‘Hawks, particularly near game’s end when Plan A (Ahmad Bradshaw) and Plan B (Brandon Jacobs) go into effect. The Tall Guys will prove masterful in the Battle of Seattle.

Woody’s Winner: New York

FACT: The home team has won the last 9 games in this matchup, dating back to 1986.

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Kansas City (5-2) @ Oakland (4-4)

As members of the AFC West, these foes face off twice a season, and the last six games between them have all been won by the road team. So much for a home-field advantage for O-Town. The Chiefs and Raiders are ranked #1 and #2 in rushing yards in the NFL, so don’t expect the pigskin to see very much atmosphere. It’ll travel up and down the field, however, particularly when the defenses begin to tire. Expect lots of scoring in the second half during this ground-based battle as the Silver-and-Black fend off the Red-and-Gold.

Woody’s Winner: Oakland

FACT: In Week 8, Raiders QB Jason Campbell threw passes of 69, 55, and 51 yards (to three different receivers).

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Indianapolis (5-2) @ Philadelphia (4-3)

If the Eagles had knocked off the Titans last week, Kevin Kolb might be back at QB this week. But they didn’t, and he’s not. Michael Vick is expected to get the start when the Colts rumble into the City of Brotherly Love on Sunday. It’s got to be tough for a team to perform well under two so radically different helmsmen, as Philly will find out sooner or later. The Colts know which side their bread is buttered on, of course, and Peyton Manning is slicker than wet jelly. Toot, toot, peanut butter.

Woody’s Winner: Indianapolis

FACT: The Colts have beaten the Eagles by 3 TD or more in each of their last four meetings.

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Dallas (1-6) @ Green Bay (5-3)

Jon Kitna at QB, Roy Williams at WR, silver-and-blue uniforms, and a WHOLE bunch of losses. The Lions? No, these are the Dallas Cowboys, and Woody won’t make the mistake of picking them to win again this season. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the mess that the ‘Pokes find themselves in. Two weeks ago, Williams predicted an 11-0 run to end the season, and now he’s saying 9 in a row is possible. But he’s never won more than 3 consecutive games as a pro. Next week, maybe he’ll keep quiet. Uh-huh.

Woody’s Winner: Green Bay

FACT: The Packers (-10 yards) and Cowboys (-1 yard) combined for negative-11 yards passing in their matchup on 10/24/65, an NFL record for futility that still stands.

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Pittsburgh (5-2) @ Cincinnati (2-5)

The Steelers seem to have gotten a grip on the mistakes that cost them a playoff spot in 2009. They faded last week at New Orleans, and face a third consecutive road game on Monday Night Football against the Bengals. After a 2-1 start, the stripes are beginning to fade for Cincinnati, who has dropped four games in a row (including two at home). Pressure from Pittsburgh’s defense will prevent Carson Palmer from throwing long balls to the Tigers’ 30-something WRs, and Rashard Mendenhall will do the rest. Can you say “Cats on a Hot Steel Roof?”

Woody’s Winner: Pittsburgh

FACT: QBs Dennis Dixon, Charlie Batch, and Ben Roethlisberger have each started and won games this season for the Steelers.

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BYE: Denver, Jacksonville, San Francisco, St. Louis, Tennessee, Washington

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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