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2011 in Sports: Bud Shaw's Weird Year in Review

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© Louis Lopez/NewSport/Corbis

Denver quarterback Tim Tebow's pastor reportedly said the reason for the Broncos' success in 2011 wasn't luck or teamwork. "It's favor," Wayne Hanson said. "God's favor."

In college basketball, the St. John's Red Storm recruited the son of a Nigerian minister. The player's name? God's Gift Achiuwa.

Texas Rangers' star outfielder Josh Hamilton said God told him he'd hit a home run in Game 6 of the World Series. Despite Hamilton's two-run homer, the Rangers lost in extra innings.

"There was a period at the end (of the sentence)," Hamilton clarified. "(God) didn't say you're going to hit it and you're going to win."

The wife of baseball slugger Albert Pujols said she initially blamed God for an unsatisfactory offer from the St. Louis Cardinals but she forgave Him. After all, Deidre Pujols said, the story ended happily with her husband signing a $254 million deal to play in sunny California.

"It's just like God to put us on a team called the Angels," she said of the Pujols' new team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Manny Ramirez, one of the greatest hitters and biggest flakes in baseball history, retired in 2011 after another positive steroid test meant he'd face a 100-game suspension. Said Ramirez, "God knows what's best (for me)."

Despite so much divine intervention, the sports world in 2011 was filled with the usual bad behavior, head-scratchers, chaos, hypocrisy and grand overstatement:

• Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter donated a kidney to a freshman player but only after Todd Hairston, the school's associate athletic director for compliance, made sure with the NCAA that a donated kidney didn't qualify as an "extra benefit."

• Harvey Updyke, an Alabama fan accused of poisoning Auburn's century-old oak trees at Toomer's Corner, called a radio station and owned up to his crime. Sort of. "I'm extremely sorry for what I've been accused of doing," said Updyke, who named his children Bear Bryant and Crimson Tyde.

• Baseball announcer Tim McCarver said during a broadcast, "It's a five-letter word. S-T-R-I-K-E." When the mistake was called to his attention by radio host Dan Patrick, McCarver said, "That's why I'm bad at Scrabble."


• A man who threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods during the Frys.com Open claimed the movie Drive inspired him to do something "courageous."


• The 1-4 Philadelphia Eagles locked the doors on the media one day after practice. The show of unity by the struggling 1-4 team left something to be desired when they discovered they'd not only locked out the media but also starting quarterback Michael Vick.

• The Lingerie Basketball League announced it would launch an inaugural season with teams named the Beauties, Glam, Starlets and Divas. League rules include a 60-second opportunity to score a bonus point called -- you might have guessed -- the "Red Light Special."

• "We're bringing 53 men to the Apocalypse and we ain't bringing flowers." -- Baltimore Ravens LB Terrell Suggs prior to a Sunday night game in Pittsburgh. Suggs' statement raised a burning question for Miss Manners: "What exactly is the appropriate host gift for an Apocalypse?"

• Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush (D) said the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, was like the Mafia. He called the organization "one of the most vicious, most ruthless ever created by mankind."

• Reporter Guan Weijia of China's Titan Sports, called NBA commissioner David Stern "the demon of all demons and he is Satan who is the king of demons in this labor dispute."

Note: Probably not a good idea to ask Bobby Rush or Guan Weijia to deliver your eulogy.

• A sign that the Apocalypse is coming -- with or without flowers: promoters matched disgraced former baseball players Jose Canseco and Len Dykstra in a celebrity boxing match, but only because Dykstra was a late-minute replacement for White House dinner crasher Tareq Salahi.

In a women's bout, Nadya "the Octomom" Suleman was scheduled to fight Amy Fisher.

Other losers: anyone who paid $19.95 to watch.

• A Wyoming high school football coach gave his players a sarcastic questionnaire in an attempt to make the point that there are no excuses for not showing toughness at all times. The questionnaire topic: possible reasons for getting their feelings hurt. One choice: "I have woman-like hormones." Others choices included homophobic and more sexist language.

Coach Pat Lynch's survey also asked for the name of the "little sissy filing (the "hurt feelings") report. There was a place for a "girly-man signature."

Lynch resigned as coach but kept his teaching position.

He's a guidance counselor.

• "I hate (ESPN's) Skip Bayless more than any person in the world." -- Charles Barkley, interviewed on The Dan Patrick Show...at a time when Kim Jong Il was still alive.

• The Irony Award: a Canadian beauty queen faced criminal charges for her part in the Stanley Cup street riots in Vancouver last summer. Sophie LaBoissonniere, charged as a part of a group that broke into a drug store, earned a title at the Miss Coastal Vancouver pageant.

Miss Congeniality.

• Overreaction of the Year (to an event that offended one person and one person only: Jets' defensive tackle Sione Pouha objected to a TD celebration in which a Buffalo receiver mimicked an airplane crashing to make fun of Jets' receiver Santonio Holmes' own "airplane" touchdown celebration:

"...That airplane thing, in my opinion, was kind of a dagger considering the circumstances of remembrance of what we just had on Sept. 11. That’s a sacred moment for a lot of people and it’s a very sobering moment.”

• The NFL fined Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu $10,000 for using a cell phone on the Steelers' sidelines during a game against Jacksonville. His crime? After suffering a concussion, he called his wife to let her know he was OK.

• Former Mets' pitcher Doc Gooden admitted in an interview with ESPN's E:60 he missed the Mets' World Series parade in 1986 and instead watched it on TV. Not with a friend. With a drug dealer he barely knew.

• "Tweet is for losers. And what I mean by that, if you wake up in the morning and you're worried about what I'm doing, you a damn idiot." -- Charles Barkley.

• Hank Williams Jr. likened President Obama and John Boehner playing golf to "Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu." Williams lost his affiliation with Monday Night Football because of the controversy. Later he said, "I have always respected the office of the President."

• Baltimore Ravens' offensive lineman Michael Oher tweeted: "Can somebody help me out? Who was Steve Jobs!" after Jobs' death in October.

Oher Tweeted that on his IPhone.

• A race car driver was fined $30,000 for losing his composure and making an obscene gesture. His name? Will Power.

• Basketball player Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace.

• Actor/comedian Albert Brooks tweeted this shortly after: "(L.A.)Dodgers file for bankruptcy. (Owner) Frank McCourt changes name to Metta World Bank."

• “You’re a hater, and you’re just unattractive inside.” -- Tennis player Serena Williams to a U.S. Open umpire.

• Steelers' linebacker James Harrison said of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, "If he were on fire, I wouldn't (urinate) on him." Harrison apologized. No clarification on whether the apology means he would.

• Bryant Gumbel on his HBO show said NBA commissioner David Stern has always seemed "eager to be viewed as kind of a modern-day plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys."

He did not explain why anyone would be eager to do so.

• Wide receiver Roy Williams sued an ex-girlfriend for the return of a $76,600 engagement ring he mailed along with a DVD after she turned down his marriage offer. Who proposes by DVD and UPS? Roy Williams.

• "Honestly, I’m not saying this to disrespect him in any way." -- Ravens' receiver Derrick Mason, who called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a "joke" in a radio interview, then appeared on ESPN's First Take wearing a T-shirt that said "A JOKE."

• The Peoria Chiefs, the Chicago Cubs Class A team, staged a "LeBron James NBA Championship Replica Giveaway" after the Miami Heat fell short in the NBA Finals against Dallas in part because of James' poor play in fourth quarters.

When anyone affiliated with the Cubs is calling you a loser, you've hit rock bottom.

• Former baseball player and sometimes celebrity boxer Jose Canseco partnered with MyFanLine.com to charge people $50 a minute to talk to him on the phone.

• When St. John's scouted 6-9 forward God's Gift Achiuwa, recruiters were careful not to confuse him with his brother.

God's Will.

• Worst Tweet of the Year: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall apologized in a blog post for a tweet following the death of Osama bin Laden.

"It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side..."

• A San Francisco Giants' equipment manager testified in accused steroid user Barry Bonds' perjury trial that Bonds' hat size grew from 7 1/4 to 7 3/8 between 2000 and 2002 despite him shaving his head.

• "If you look at Trump's record, he is only interested in things he can control." -- Donald Trump, on why he would only become a partner in the New York Mets franchise if he could call the shots.

• “I really believe that the NFL would fall apart without me. That may sound cocky, that may sound arrogant, but I am telling you the truth.” -- agent Drew Rosenhaus to 60 Minutes.

No. It doesn't sound cocky or arrogant. It sounds like a case of mistaken identity.

He must think he's God.

Related: Bud Shaw's Year in Review (2010)

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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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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