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The OTHER March Madness Tournaments

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The NCAA basketball tournament starts today and lasts for the rest of the month. March Madness is not limited to basketball, however. All around the internet you'll find non-sports tournaments you can participate in yourself, filling out brackets, voting for your favorites, and following the process to determine the #1 something-or-other.

March Madness Drama Derby

Vulture's March Madness Drama Derby aims to determine the greatest television drama of the past 25 years. I was a little shocked to find out how many of my all-time favorites are too old to participate! The winners of each matchup are determined by a panel of TV bloggers and critics, but you can express your opinion and vote in the alternate universe of Facebook. The ultimate winner will be announced March 23rd.

Candy Madness

So Good has a different food tournament every year. This year it's Candy Madness. The field of 64 candies are led by #1 seeds M&M's, Hershey's Bar, Snickers, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Voting in the first round will begin Thursday at noon.

YA March Madness Tourney

Four literary blogs have teamed up to host the YA March Madness Tourney. You can vote to determine the best young adult book of the year! Take a look at the bracket, and go vote in the regions of Paranormal at GReads, Contemporary at ChickLovesLit, Fantasy/Mythology at The Book Cellar, and Sci-Fi/Dystopian at Bookalicious. The voting is scheduled to begin today. There's also a bracket-predicting contest to go along with the tournament. The tournament winner will be crowned April 2.

2012 Fandom Steel Cage Match

The 2012 Fandom Steel Cage Match March Madness pits television and movie characters against each other. Now in the sweet sixteen round, the four regions are comedy, teen, sci-fi, and drama. Voting is only open to Livejournal members, but everyone can follow the tournament.

Geek Tournament

The 2012 Geek Tournament from Transformer Generation Dad is already in the second round of voting. The tournament is to crown your favorite science fiction ...stuff. This year, there are actually four tournaments with four winners instead of regional play, because how can a captain compete with a universe? The four tournaments are for best captain, best crew, best ship, and best universe. The brackets are offered in a spreadsheet, of course.

Worst Company In America

Consumerist's 7th Annual Worst Company In America tournament has a bracket of 32 companies. This year, nine of the companies are telecoms, the ones we all complain about. The voting begins today with Bank of America vs. Chase, Charter Communications vs. CenturyLink (Qwest), and Target vs. Best Buy duking it out in the elimination round. Get the latest updates with this link.

Name of the Year

The Name of the Year Tournament is in constant tournament mode to decide the funniest name of a real person for each year. The Final Four in the 2011 Name of the Year tournament have just been decided. Courvoisier Winetavius Richardson, Delorean Blow, Taco B.M. Monster, and Neptune Pringle III made the cut, although the opponents they beat have some pretty strange names, too. You can vote in Richardson vs. Blow and Monster vs. Pringle now. Check out the previous years' winners, too.

MTV News Musical March Madness

MTV News Musical March Madness seeds 64 bands. Voting is now open in the first round: click your favorite bands on the interactive brackets to vote. The number one seeds are The Black Keys, Foo Fighters, Evanescence, and Mumford & Sons.

Middle-earth March Madness

TheOneRing.net presents The Middle-earth March Madness Tournament. The original 46 Tolkien characters have been whittled down to the 32 who made the bracket. As of yesterday, the brackets had been chosen but not yet revealed, so check back at the site for updates.

The Ladies' Tournament

Esquire magazine is holding The Ladies' Tournament to determine the hottest woman of 2012. The regions are Movies, where Charlize Theron is the #1 seed; Television, where Sofia Vergara holds the #1 seed; Models + Music, in which Kate Upton has the #1 seed; and Royals, seeding Kate Middleton at #1. See the entire bracket here. Round one voting is in progress now. Logo design by Ben Running.

The Ultimate Tournament Bracket Bracket

And now for the meta entry. The Bleacher Report took at look at all these other non-NCAA tournament brackets and decided to create a tournament that everyone can argue about: a bracket of online tournament ideas! There are 68 different bracket concepts fighting each other for supremacy. The regions are TV & Movies, Pop Culture (pictured), Food, and Sports. You can imagine this would lead to some very strange competitions, like "4. Simpsons Quotes vs. 13. Judd Apatow Projects" and "8. Things in a Can vs. 9. Best Non-Food Item Used as Food." After the first couple of rounds, they would get even sillier. I don't believe there will be any actual voting in this tournament; it's just food for thought. However, there is a downloadable bracket for your convenience.

There are also plenty of annual March Madness online tournaments that we told you about in previous years that are returning for more fun this year:

Fug Madness 2012 brackets are out; the play-in round is today and the first-round voting starts Thursday. Vote for the celebrity of the year!

Muppet Madness starts today! This year, participants are drawn heavily from the latest Muppet film.
The regions are divided into New Characters, Celebrities, Classics, and Old Favorites.

The Morning News Tournament of Books is open for first-round voting.

Hulu's Best in Show 2012 determines the best TV series of the year, first round voting is going on now.

A Beer in the Hand is preparing to run the 2012 Beer Tournament, and is asking your help in ranking beers for this year's brackets. Update: The beer bracket is ready!

The Romance Novel Tournament from dabwaha once again has a bracket of 64 novels ready for your voting, which begins Wednesday.

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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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