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How NBA Players Are Spending the Lockout

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In a job application for Regency Furniture posted online, free agent guard Delonte West checked the "full-time" box and answered "yes" to the question, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"

To the followup -- "If yes, describe in full" -- West wrote, "Misunderstanding."

In September 2009 while West was playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Prince George (Md.) County police stopped him around 10 p.m. near his home after he cut off a police cruiser in his three-wheeled 2009 Can-Am Spyder motorcycle. West told the cops he was carrying a gun in his waist band. They also found a .357 strapped to his leg and a shotgun inside a guitar case slung across his back.

Apparently, the misunderstanding was that West thought it was OK to travel around as Mad Max.

(He pleaded guilty in July 2010 to traffic and weapons charges.)

Early in the NBA lockout that threatens to kill the 2011-2012 season, West tweeted that he was looking for work at Home Depot. He later told TrueHoop he applied at Sam's Club, saying, "I actually might have work with Sam's (Club), BJ's, selling knives."

I guess because they don't carry guns.

West falls into the category of NBA players who have come off publicly as bored, distracted and only slightly out of touch these past months as owners and players argue details of a new collective bargaining agreement. This is a big improvement over the last NBA lockout in 1998-99, when league NBA players came off as greedy and self-indulgent and from here-to-Mars out of touch. And the improvement is not by accident.

The NBA Players Association issued a 56-page lockout handbook to its constituency in anticipation of a long labor stalemate this time around. According to the New York Times, it covered budgeting, player services and media. And it carried a warning: "Please be sensitive about interviews or other media displays of a luxurious lifestyle."

NBA players -- pro athletes in every sport, really -- have trouble winning the public relations battle when there's a lockout or strike. For one, people think they're grossly overpaid to begin with. For another, the owners are much smaller in number. The commissioner of the sport usually institutes a gag order.

Basically, ownership knows that players can do and say the craziest things given enough time. Some of those things are bound to backfire when the public is already pre-disposed to wishing a pox on both houses of the warring sides.

Tales From Lockouts Past

Compared to the last NBA lockout and other work stoppages in pro sports, though, NBA players have for the most part avoided some of the more egregious pratfalls of the past:

In an October 1998 interview, guard Kenny Anderson admitted he spent $75,000 a year on insurance and maintenance of his eight cars. Said Anderson, "I was thinking of selling one of my cars. I don't need them all. You know just get rid of the Mercedes."

Oh the horrors of having only one car for each day of the week.
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The same year, Patrick Ewing, president of the NBA Players Association, said, "As pro athletes we make a lot of money but we spend a lot of money, too."
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When players gathered to discuss the labor situation, they chose Las Vegas. When they held a charity basketball game, they doubled down and picked Atlantic City as the site. A percentage of the proceeds from that game were designated for "needy" players but the public backlash was so great all proceeds went to charities.
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When the lockout ended, Shawn Kemp became the face of indulgence. Which made sense since he developed two extra chins during the 204-day stalemate. He reported to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a Macy's parade float, weighing well over 300 pounds.


When head coach Mike Fratelo asked him how he could've let himself so, Kemp said, "Coach, I didn't think we were coming back."
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Guard Tim Hardaway, out of touch with polls showing public apathy toward the NBA at the time, said, "People are starving to see pro basketball."


Just not Shawn Kemp.
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The tone set by NBA players during the 1998-99 lockout called to mind running back John Riggins during the 1982 NFL strike.

Somebody came up with the bright idea of staging exhibition games in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. that year. Despite a lack of insurance, Riggins played.

Said Riggins, "I'll do just about anything for money."

This time around, NBA players for the most part haven't aggravated the situation. "For the most part" means almost everyone except Kenyon Martin whose Twitter account carried a message to detractors:

"All Haters should catch full blown Aids and die. Do the world a favor! and rid us of you all!"

Martin's Twitter account was deactivated the next day and he denied sending out the tweet. He is playing in China.

At the very least, no one has pulled a Rashard Mendenhall, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back who tweeted after the death of Osama bin Laden that we'd only heard "one side" of a terrorist's legacy. And said of 9-11, "We'll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style."

When sporting goods giant Champion dropped him as a client, Mendenhall sued for breach of contract.

So no NBA player has won the Mendenhall Trophy this time despite a dangerous opportunity to speak of behalf of the late Moammar Gaddafi.

Keeping Busy

This time around, most players have filled the void rather harmlessly.

New Orleans point guard Chris Paul appeared on Family Feud with his father and other family members.
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Kris Humphries married a Kardashian.
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Kris Humphries was served divorce papers by a Kardashian 72 days later.
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Kevin Love took up beach volleyball.
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Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace and went on Dancing With The Stars.
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Dwight Howard and Gilbert Arenas posted pictures of themselves "planking."
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Kevin Durant accepted a Twitter fan's request to play flag football at Oklahoma State.
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LeBron James put on the pads and practiced with his old high school football team.
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Blake Griffin interned with the internet humor site Funny or Die.
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Spencer Hawes, a Seattle native, got the Space Needle shaved into the back of his head.
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Amar'e Stoudemire said players might have to consider starting their own league.

According to the latest reports, the 2011-12 season might be canceled. Which will leave players plenty of time to add to this list.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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

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]

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