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The Time Notre Dame Played the New York Giants (for the Unemployed!)

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"Knute Rockne's Notre Dame all-stars arrived in New York for their battle with the New York Giants pro team in a charity grid battle. They were received by Mayor Walker at City Hall in New York." © Bettmann/CORBIS

When the Great Depression started squeezing New Yorkers’ job prospects, the city got creative. In October 1930, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker organized the Mayor’s Official Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed and the Needy, and he was clever about finding funding for his relief efforts. Walker suggested that local sports teams hold charity exhibition games to help drum up some cash, and the Giants of the then-fledgling National Football League offered to do their part.

The G-Men were happy to play an exhibition game, but they needed an opponent. Pro football was still finding its footing, so the team decided to ask a college team to play instead. When it came to college programs in 1930, nobody’s reputation could top Notre Dame’s, so the Giants approached legendary coach Knute Rockne about coming to New York for a charity exhibition.

The notion of a college team lining up across from an NFL squad sounds absurd to modern fans, but in 1930 many football analysts still considered the college game to be far superior to the upstart pros. Sure, the Giants had gone 13-4 to finish second in the NFL’s standings for the 1930 season, but Notre Dame had gone undefeated in 1929 and 1930 against what many fans felt was stronger competition. For the Giants, a team that had only been founded five years earlier, taking on a juggernaut like the Fighting Irish had the potential to be a serious fiasco.

Luckily, Rockne was open to the idea of bringing his boys to New York for the game and scheduled a tilt for December 14th. There was one catch, though. The Irish had a road game against Southern California in Los Angeles on December 6 – a clash in which they pummeled the Trojans for a 27-0 blowout – and Rockne didn’t want to have his team play two games on opposite coasts in the span of eight days.

Getting the Band Back Together

As always, Rockne had a solution. Instead of bringing the whole 1930 Fighting Irish roster to New York, why didn’t he assemble an all-star squad of Notre Dame greats, past and present?

The Giants loved this idea, so Rockne set about putting together an unstoppable lineup that included a reunion of the famed Four Horsemen backfield that had dominated college football from 1922 through 1924. He managed to get five of the Seven Mules, the Horsemen’s old offensive line, on the squad, too.

It might have given Rockne pause that most of his players, including all of the Four Horsemen, were no longer active football players. All four of the Horsemen had college coaching gigs at the time: fullback Elmer Layden as head coach at Duquesne, halfback Jim Crowley as head coach at Michigan State, quarterback Harry Stuhldreher as head coach at Villanova, and halfback Don Miller as backfield coach at Ohio State. They weren’t exactly old men, but all four were in their late 20s.

New York baseball Giants owner Charles Stoneham donated the use of the Polo Grounds for the big game, and fans started buying up tickets. Field boxes fetched as much as $100 apiece, but it was hard to resist the draw of seeing all of these Notre Dame legends back on the field together. And it would be terrific to see them wallop an inferior pro team.

Giants Among Men

Over 50,000 fans turned out on a frigid day to watch the Fighting Irish decimate the lowly G-Men. In Rockne’s pep talk before the game, he told his stars that the Giants were too big and slow to handle them, and if his team went up by a touchdown or two, they could coast to an easy win.

Rockne may have pumped up his boys’ confidence, but once he laid eyes on the Giants he knew his team was in trouble. The pros may not have been as revered as the Fighting Irish, but they were much bigger and stronger. When Rockne shook hands with Giants quarterback Benny Friedman, the NFL’s first great passer and a future Hall of Famer, before the game, the coach made a simple plea: “For Pete’s sake, take it easy.”

The Irish were the heavy favorites in the game, but once the two teams took the field, it quickly became apparent that they were no match for the pros. The Giants’ hulking defensive linemen had their way with the much smaller Irish players. On the first drive of the game, the Giants pinned the Irish back against their own goal line and dropped Horsemen quarterback Harry Stuhldreher for a safety and a 2-0 lead.

The score never got any closer. Horsemen or not, Notre Dame couldn’t move the ball well enough to pick up a first down, much less a score. The Giants went into halftime with a 15-0 lead, and the game wasn’t as close as the score would imply. Rockne sent a message to the Giants’ locker room during the break: "For heaven’s sake, I came here to help a charity and at a lot of trouble. You are making us look bad. Slow up, will you? I don't want to go home and be laughed at.”

The Giants showed Rockne some charity of their own by benching Friedman and other top players for the second half, but the professional second stringers were just as effective as the starters had been. When the final gun sounded, the Giants had laid a 22-0 shellacking on the Fighting Irish.

The score wasn’t close, but the game’s stats do an even better job of demonstrating the Giants’ absolute dominance on the field. Notre Dame’s offense never advanced the ball into Giant territory, and the team only squeaked out a single first down in the entire contest. The Irish quarterbacks didn’t complete a single pass, but they put two interceptions in the Giants’ hands.

Rockne had been publicly boisterous in the buildup to the game and had a long history of being skeptical of pro football’s relative merits. After the thorough drubbing his all-stars received, even he had to tip his cap to the giants. "That was the greatest football machine I ever saw," he told his team at a gala dinner after the game. "I am glad none of you got hurt."

The only good news for Rockne was that the game had raised a lot of cash for the unemployed. A few days later the Giants handed Mayor Walker a check for over $115,000, which the Committee for the Relief of the Unemployed and the Needy used to fund handouts of food and clothing. (The trick worked so well that the following summer the committee put on a charity baseball exhibition between the Yankees and the baseball Giants.)

Football historians cite the high-profile exhibition as a turning point for the perceived legitimacy of the pro game, so in the end, everyone came out ahead. Except for the Notre Dame ball carriers. They were probably sore for days.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]