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The Worst First Pick in Basketball History

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There’s not much we can say with certainty as Thursday's NBA draft approaches. Some team will get a terrific bargain in this draft. Some team will burn its pick on a colossal disappointment whose name will be whispered in the same breath those of uber-busts Darko Mili?i? and Marcus Fizer. NBA general managers should take heart, though. No matter how boneheaded their draft picks are, no matter how colossally their selections flop, they won’t make the worst NBA draft selection of all time. That distinction goes to the very first pick of the league’s very first draft.

When the Basketball Association of America held its inaugural draft on July 1, 1947, the Pittsburgh Ironmen held the first overall pick. (The BAA would merge with the National Basketball League in 1949 to form the National Basketball Association.) The Ironmen used the league’s first-ever pick to select Clifton McNeely, a 28-year-old guard from Texas Wesleyan and veteran of the Army Air Corps. This decision proved to be one of the worst in league history, right up there with “Let’s lock up Jerome James for five years, $30 million!”

From a basketball standpoint, the selection of McNeely made sense. The Ironmen’s struggling offense had only managed to score 61.2 points per game the previous season. The team’s defense was on the wrong side of mediocre, too, so Pittsburgh had piled up a rotten 15-45 record and finished dead last in the standings. McNeely, meanwhile, had been an All-American at Texas Wesleyan while leading the nation in scoring. An anemic offense snapping up a scoring savant seemed perfectly logical.

Just one problem...

Or, rather, it would have been perfectly logical if McNeely had wanted to play pro basketball. He didn’t. McNeely turned down the Ironmen’s employment offer in favor of staying home and coaching high school hoops in Pampa, TX. (Apparently the pre-draft interview process for prospects was less rigorous in those days; nobody bothered to ask questions like, “You do want to play pro basketball, right?”) It wasn’t a bad decision for McNeely; he coached Pampa to four state titles in 13 years on the bench. He later became a principal and school administrator.

To put it mildly, the bungled pick didn’t turn out quite as well for the Ironmen. Owner John Harris actually folded the team before the 1947-48 BAA season even started. The best evidence that the Ironmen ever existed comes from their terrible showing in the team’s one and only draft.

The Ironmen weren’t the only BAA squad who left the 1947 draft with nothing to show for their first-round pick, though. The Providence Steamrollers selected University of Connecticut standout Walt Dropo with the fourth overall pick of the draft. Dropo spurned the Steamrollers to join the Boston Red Sox. He was both an All-Star and the American League Rookie of the Year in 1950 at the beginning of a 13-year MLB career.

Of course, the only thing more frustrating than wasting picks is seeing the players you pass over go on to great things. While McNeely, Dropo, and two of the other 10 first-round picks never suited up for their respective squads, three players taken much later in the draft would later earn induction into the Hall of Fame: Harry “the Horse” Gallatin, 6’4” forward-center Jim Pollard, and swingman Andy Phillip.

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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]