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The Stupidest Questions in Super Bowl History

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We're not in the business of predicting Super Bowl winners, but we can guarantee there will be lots of stupid questions asked of the participants.

The annual Super Bowl tradition known as Media Day—rechristened "Super Bowl Opening Night" this year—has come to represent the NFL at its silliest. It’s the place where a Japanese reporter once asked of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, “Tell me, why do they call you Boomer?” (Well, they don’t actually. That would be Boomer Esiason, the Cincinnati quarterback.)

It’s where someone asked Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Joe Salave’a, “What’s your relationship with the football?” To which Salave’a said, “I’d say it’s strictly platonic.”

Media Day is where a St. Louis player found himself pondering the grammatical conundrum contained within the question, “Is Ram a noun or a verb?”

Where Rams’ quarterback Kurt Warner was asked, “Do you believe in voodoo and can I have a lock of your hair?”

Where Denver running back Detron Smith was asked, “What size panties do you think you’d wear?”

And it's where Downtown Julie Brown, formerly of MTV, asked Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, “What are you going to wear in the game Sunday?”

Asked how he got psyched to play in big games, Buffalo’s great running back Thurman Thomas sniffed, “I read the newspapers and look at all the stupid questions you all ask.”

Not Quite as Stupid

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An urban legend grew that Washington quarterback Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, was asked, “How long have you been a black quarterback?”

That's not exactly what happened. ESPN.com cleared it up. The reporter knew Williams. He also knew Williams was tired of hearing about race. So the question was more along the lines of, “Doug, obviously you’ve been a black quarterback all along. When did it suddenly become important?”

Exactly as Stupid

I wasn't there for that tortured exchange. But I was in the group of reporters at Super Bowl XV when Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett was asked a question that makes every Super Bowl list. And this one wasn't staged by a TV or radio personality. As sports writers we have to own this one.

Plunkett had just answered a question about his parents. He spoke in low, respectful tones about growing up in a special needs household, that his mother was blind and that his father, also blind, had passed away.

Five more topics came and went after Plunkett mentioned his parents. A reporter from the Philadelphia press corps, a guy I once worked with at another paper, jumped in. He was a columnist. He wasn't there to write about the blitz. Plunkett's family situation was far more intriguing to him.

He tried two or three times to ask a follow-up. But he kept losing the floor to reporters who timed their questions better or who were close enough to make eye contact with Plunkett, or who simply spoke up louder.

Finally, he forced his way back into the interview.

"Jimmy, Jimmy, I want to make sure I have this right. Was it dead mother, blind father or blind mother, dead father?"

It's going to be a long week.

This post originally appeared in 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.

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