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A Brief History of the Super Bowl Coin Toss

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If the ceremonial coin toss before Sunday’s Super Bowl turns up heads, everyone enrolled in the Papa John’s customer loyalty program will win a free large one-topping pizza and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Max. Thousands of other fans will collect on a 50-50 prop bet. The Super Bowl coin toss hasn’t always been such a big deal. Here’s a brief look at the history of the pre-game spectacle.

Red Grange Breaks the Ice

For the first 11 Super Bowls, a game official conducted the coin toss. In 1978, at Super Bowl XII in New Orleans, Chicago Bears great and Hall of Famer Red Grange became the first celebrity to perform the toss.

The Dallas Cowboys – the designated visiting team – called heads and won the toss. Dallas went on to beat the Denver Broncos, 27-10. Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, who gave the Super Bowl its name and may have also been responsible for the coin toss becoming a televised event, participated in the coin toss ceremony before Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. A month after her husband’s death in December 2006, Norma Hunt took part in the coin toss with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino before Super Bowl XLI.

By the Numbers

In 45 Super Bowls to date, the opening coin toss has come up heads 24 times and tails 21 times. The NFC has won the toss 31 times out of 45, including a remarkable 14 straight years. The New England Patriots were the last AFC team to win the coin toss, way back in 1997. The team that wins the coin toss is 22-23 all-time and has lost 10 of the last 15 Super Bowls. All but two teams that have won the coin toss have elected to receive the opening kickoff. The Arizona Cardinals became the first team to defer to the second half in Super Bowl XLIII and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-23. The Green Bay Packers deferred after winning the toss in last year’s Super Bowl en route to a 31-25 win.

Another Set of Eyes

Most of the ceremonial coin tossers have been former coaches and players. Los Angeles Rams great Elroy Hirsch performed the duty at Super Bowl XVII with a ceremonial coin that had helmets on one side (tails) and players holding helmets on the other side (heads). Miami’s Bob Kuechenberg called tails and the coin landed with the helmets side up, but referee Jerry Markbreit was confused. Markbreit turned to Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and said, “Heads. You win the toss.” Hirsch pointed out the mistake, and after Markbreit turned off his microphone to avoid any further embarrassment, sorted things out. According to Markbreit, Theismann turned to him and said, “You know, I remember when you used to work in the Big Ten and you stunk then. Where the hell did they get you?” It wasn’t the last time Markbreit would hear about his mistake. NFL commissioner Peter Rozelle came into the locker room after the game, found Markbreit in the shower, and said, “Markbreit, once you got past the coin toss, you did fine.”

Teach Me How to Flip It?

Marie Lombardi, the widow of legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi, whose name adorns the Super Bowl trophy, was selected to toss the coin before Super Bowl XV. “Somewhere up there, a coach is looking down and saying, ‘What is that woman doing out there on the field?’” Lombardi told reporters after learning that she had been chosen. Lombardi had reportedly never flipped a coin before, so NFL officials spent time practicing with her at the dress rehearsal on the day before the game.

Coins in Space

In 1992, CBS reached out to NASA to see if it would be willing to conduct a pre-game coin toss aboard the Discovery space shuttle. There was only one problem. “A coin flip in space would be mighty tough since the coin won't come down,” NASA chief flight director Randy Stone told reporters. “It will just flip and flip and flip.” Instead, Canadian astronaut Roberta Bondar held a coin and performed two backward flips before being brought to a stop. The coin came up heads, just as it did at the actual coin toss before the game, which was conducted by Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll. A ceremonial coin that was going to be used for the coin toss before Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston flew with the space shuttle Columbia that was destroyed upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. The Columbia’s crew was honored at halftime of the game. The coin used in the ceremonial toss before Super Bowl XLIV in 2010 traveled more than 4 million miles on space shuttle Atlantis. Leland Melvin, who played with the Lions and Cowboys before becoming an astronaut, was among the people who traveled with the coin in space.

Presidents

In 1985, Ronald Reagan became the first president to perform the coin toss, but he wasn’t on the field at Stanford Stadium. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny relayed the call to the president, who was shown tossing the coin from the White House. George H.W. Bush and Roger Staubach performed the ceremonial coin toss before Super Bowl XXXVI.

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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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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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