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The Origins of the Terrible Towel and the Lambeau Leap

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Super Bowl XLV will take place on Sunday, February 6th. It would take far too long to detail the long, storied history of both teams. So, in the interest of brevity – and to avoid the Super Bowl overdose that is surely on the way – let’s just take a look at the origins of two of their most famous game day traditions: The Terrible Towel and the Lambeau Leap.

The Terrible Towel

Steelers fans are among the most loyal and rabid fans in all of professional sports. And when they descend on downtown Pittsburgh clad in black and gold to cheer on their hometown team at Heinz Field, they don’t show up empty-handed. They bring towels.

The Terrible Towel was created by the late, beloved Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope as a radio station promotion back in 1975. Even if you don’t like the Steelers, you can’t have anything but affection for Cope as he describes the way the tradition came about:

If that didn’t make you love him, here’s another part of the story, as detailed on the website of the Allegheny Valley School – an organization that provides care for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities:

In 1996, Myron Cope walked into Allegheny Valley School President and CEO Regis Champ's office and said, "Rege, I've got a gift for the school." He then handed over documents that gave the ownership of The Terrible Towel® trademark to Allegheny Valley School. From that day forward, the proceeds from the sale of any Terrible Stuff have come to Allegheny Valley School.

Why Allegheny Valley School?

"My son Danny, who was born brain-damaged and can neither speak nor otherwise function normally, has lived at Allegheny Valley School since 1982," Cope explained. "For my late wife Mildred and me, Allegheny Valley School was a Godsend. Danny is happy and is cared for with expertise, understanding and love."

As Pittsburgh fans pack up their Terrible Towels and get ready to head to Dallas to watch their team face off against the Packers in Super Bowl XLV, here’s an interesting twist they may not be aware of: The Terrible Towel (a “Pittsburgh Original” though it may be) is actually produced by McArthur Towel & Sports in Baraboo, Wisconsin – located just a few hours from Green Bay. The company's president is a big Packers fan.

The Lambeau Leap

The storied history of the Green Bay Packers is full of larger than life icons: Vince Lombardi, Super Bowls I & II, the “Frozen Tundra.” As if that weren’t enough, they are also the proud owners of the most famous touchdown celebration in football – the Lambeau Leap.

For a franchise established in 1919, the Lambeau Leap – which consists of a celebrating Packer player diving full-on into the Lambueau Field stands located through the back of the end zone – is a very new phenomenon. First performed in 1993 by Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler, the Lambeau Leap is now an indispensable part of the Pack’s home game experience.

Here is a brief description of the initial leap, taken from Butler’s website:

On December 26, 1993, the Packers were playing the visiting Los Angeles Raiders. On a second-down swing pass to running back Randy Jordan, Butler forced a fumble that was recovered by Reggie White at the Raiders' 35-yard-line. After running with the ball for 10 yards, White lateraled to Butler, who ran the remaining 25 yards into the end zone and then made a spontaneous leap into the arms of fans in the south bleachers. The Packers went on to win 28-0 to clinch what would be the first of six consecutive playoff berths.

For their part, the Packers encourage the practice – even labeling a section of the stadium the Lambeau Leap Zone. On their webpage dedicated to the area, they detail some of the tougher logistical challenges a Green Bay player may encounter while attempting it:

Some “leaps” are very graceful and flamboyant, while some are somewhat awkward with heavier players barely getting the loft to clear the barrier separating the field from the stands. At times slightly chagrined, but still festive, bulkier Packers have been “helped” into the stands by fans who tugged them up and over when the player couldn’t quite muster the feat unassisted.

Presented here, for the historical record, is the original Lambeau Leap:

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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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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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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]