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What Happened to the NIT?

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Although it will once again be overshadowed by March Madness, this year's National Invitation Tournament gets rolling tonight. You might not realize it, but the NIT wasn't always an afterthought. Let's take a look at how the New York tourney was eclipsed by the NCAA.

Few collections of letters arouse mixed emotions in college hoops fans quite like “NIT.” Getting a bid in the annual National Invitation Tournament means a team didn’t do quite enough to make it into the field for March Madness. (That’s no fun.) On the other hand, the team gets to play more games. (That’s fun!) Of course, even winning the NIT is a mixed bag, with the thrill of ending the season with a victory undercut by rival fans derisively labeling the squad “the 69th-best team in the country.”

An NIT bid wasn’t always a consolation prize, though. The NIT is actually one year older than the NCAA Tournament – Temple routed Colorado to win the first NIT in 1938 – and it was originally an exclusive field that only invited six teams to New York.

The early NIT had a lot of advantages over its NCAA-sanctioned competition. In an era when travel wasn’t quite as pleasant as it is now, the tournament’s New York digs let the top East Coast teams play relatively close to home. Playing in New York offered greater TV exposure as well.

In both tournaments’ early days, the NCAA knew the NIT was the more attractive tournament, so the original versions of March Madness actually started after the NIT ended to avoid any head-to-head competition. This scheduling quirk made postseason redemption possible; in 1944 Utah won the NCAA Tournament after losing to Kentucky in the first round of the NIT. In 1950 the City College of New York won both the NIT and the NCAA Tournament in the same season, the only time a single team claimed both titles.

The two-tournament format gave rise to another interesting historical footnote. During World War II the NIT and NCAA champions would square off for a Red Cross–sponsored charity game after each season. The NCAA champions (Wyoming in 1943, Utah in 1944, and Oklahoma State in 1945) won all three of these tilts.

What happened to the NIT’s prestige?

The NCAA’s uncanny ability to impose its will on teams and fans was just as potent in the 1950s as it is now. Starting in the 1950s, the NCAA forced any team that won its conference to automatically accept its NCAA Tournament bid. The new rule began the slow process of draining the top teams away from the NIT.

Over the 1960s the NIT’s reputation dwindled, but it didn’t totally die. The tournament became national news in 1970 thanks to a protest by Marquette coach Al McGuire. Marquette had nabbed the 8th spot in the final Associated Press poll of the season, but the Warriors found themselves seeded in the NCAA’s Midwest Region rather than the Mideast Region. McGuire didn’t love the seeding because it meant his team would have to play in Fort Worth rather than closer to home in Dayton. To protest the decision, McGuire snubbed the NCAA by rejecting its at-large bid in favor of playing in (and winning) the NIT.

McGuire’s decision didn’t sit well with the NCAA, which reacted by instituting a new rule that forced all teams to accept a March Madness bid if they received one. (Remember that rule; it became important later.)

The real death knell for the NIT’s prestige probably came when the NCAA changed another rule in 1975. March Madness expanded to 32 teams that year, and the NCAA began allowing multiple teams from each conference to play in the Big Dance. (Previously only one team from each conference could play in the NCAAs.) These new rules further depleted the supply of quality teams that could accept NIT bids. After the NCAA expanded its field to 64 teams in 1985, the NIT-eligible leftovers became even less appetizing.

Who owns the NIT?

For most of its history, the NIT fell under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, a group consisting of five New York schools: Fordham, Wagner, Manhattan, NYU, and St. John’s. That all began to change around 10 years ago when the MIBA sued the NCAA for violating antitrust laws. According to the MIBA’s thinking, the NCAA rule that forced schools to accept March Madness bids even if they theoretically would rather have played in the NIT was a pretty clear antitrust violation.

The legal debate raged for four years until the NCAA finally squared things with the MIBA in August 2005 by buying both the preseason and postseason NITs for $56.5 million.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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