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The Last Time the NFL Played on Tuesday...

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Citing public safety concerns related to the forecasted winter storm that ultimately dumped more than a foot of snow on much of the Philadelphia area, the National Football League postponed Sunday night’s Eagles-Vikings game until tonight. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, tonight’s game is the first NFL game played on a Tuesday since 1946. Here’s a brief history of that game and the people involved.

Why Tuesday?

The Boston Yanks and New York Giants were scheduled to open the 1946 NFL season under the lights at Boston’s Braves Field on Monday, September 30, but a “deluge of rain that drenched downtown Boston throughout the morning” forced the postponement of the game until Tuesday. From the New York Times: “Waiting until early afternoon for a change in conditions, Owner Ted Collins of the Yanks and Stout Steve Owen, the Giants’ coach, agreed to put the contest over until tomorrow night.”

Where was the postponement announced?

Sunday’s announcement echoed through family rooms and sports bars via the host of every fan’s pregame show of choice and left fantasy football players scrambling to adjust their lineups based on the news that the game would not be played in a whiteout. In 1946, the announcement came at the first weekly gathering of the Boston Yanks Marching and Chowder Club, which was held at the Parker House. The dignitaries present included Massachusetts Governor Maurice J. Tobin, Boston Mayor James. M. Curley, and NFL Commissioner Bert Bell.

Where’s the beef?

Tobin had recently wired President Truman that hospitals throughout Massachusetts were without meat. He had also launched an investigation into whether meat being hidden in storage was the cause of the meat famine affecting the country at the time. As reported in the New York Times, Tobin used the Marching and Chowder Club meeting as a forum to discuss the matter. “Commenting on the amount of beef in the Yanks and Giants squads, Governor Tobin…said he wished his investigators could find as much in their search. ‘The famine then would be at an end,’ he said.”

On Sunday, Philadelphia Governor Ed Rendell didn’t find anything funny about the NFL’s decision to postpone the game. “This is football! Good lord, Vince Lombardi would be spinning in his grave that we canceled the football game for the snow,” he said.

How did the coaches react to the news?

Eagles head coach Andy Reid, whose team is still in the hunt for a first-round bye in the playoffs, said the NFL made the right choice to postpone Sunday’s game and downplayed the difficulty of preparing for next week’s game against the Dallas Cowboys on short rest. Owen was a little more outspoken in 1946, with his Giants scheduled to play at Pittsburgh the following week. “It won’t give us much time to get in shape for the Steelers, and it might turn out where it would cost us a championship,” he said. To his credit, Owen didn’t criticize Collins’ decision. “With no break in sight, it would have been a bad night for football anyway, and especially for any customers,” he said.

What happened in the game?

Merle Hapes rushed for two touchdowns and Ken Strong added a field goal as New York dominated Boston, 17-0, in front of a small crowd of 16,500. The game story included no mention of the field conditions. The short week didn’t cost the Giants at Pittsburgh. They defeated the Steelers, 17-14, en route to a 7-3-1 regular season record.

Who was Merle Hapes?

The former Mississippi standout rushed for five touchdowns during the regular season, but was barred from playing in the 1946 championship after he and quarterback Frank Filchock were reportedly offered bribes to fix the game against the Chicago Bears. Filchock denied the offer and was allowed to play in the game, a 24-14 Giants loss. Bell banned Hapes indefinitely during the offseason for “acts detrimental to the NFL and to pro football.” Hapes’ suspension was lifted in 1954, but he didn’t play another down in the NFL. The policy that requires NFL teams to report injuries in advance of a game was first instituted by Bell for the 1947 season, and many believe it was in direct response to the gambling rumors surrounding the 1946 championship. Bell hoped the policy would help prevent gamblers from manipulating the betting line by securing insider information about a player’s status.

Who was Ken Strong?

Strong, the other player to score in the NFL’s last Tuesday night game, played several different positions, including fullback, before he became a kicking specialist for the Giants. Strong accounted for 17 points in “The Sneakers Game,” the Giants’ 1934 championship game win against the Bears. The game, which earned its nickname after the Giants’ equipment manager borrowed sneakers from nearby Manhattan College to help New York’s players get better traction on the frozen field, ranks No. 8 on the NFL’s top 10 list of bad weather games. Strong is often credited as being the first player to successfully convert a fair catch kick, which allows a team to attempt a field goal from the line of scrimmage on the first play after a fair catch. Only three other players have successfully converted a fair catch kick in NFL history.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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