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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
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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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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

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]

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