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11 Fun Facts About Hockey Pucks

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To celebrate the end of the NHL’s latest lockout, here are some nifty scraps of trivia from the weird and wonderful history of the beloved hockey puck that are guaranteed to impress your friends as you watch your favorite team finally take the ice. (Of course, we all know my beloved Philadelphia Flyers are gonna win it all this year—but I digress).

1. The Earliest Hockey Games Were Played With Chunks of Frozen Cow Dung.

This dates back to the game’s outdoor roots. For understandable reasons, modern athletes prefer the vulcanized rubber disc we all know today … although the game might be a bit more interesting if they brought back the old method.

2. NASA Uses “Two-Ton Hockey Pucks” to Train Astronauts.

In space travel, the threat of free-floating equipment drifting off is a very serious one. Houston’s Johnson Space Center prepares astronauts for this problem at the Precision Air Bearing Facility (PABF), which works like a gigantic air-hockey table and includes what the Center officially describes as a set of “two-ton hockey pucks” hovering over the floor. These are pushed around by aspiring astronauts. You can read NASA’s official report on these here.

3. The First Rubber Hockey Pucks Were Made From Sliced-Up Lacrosse Balls.

When the sport moved indoors, whole balls were originally used, but rink owners soon found it preferable to cut them into thirds and keep the middle section. This basic design was the standard by 1885.

4. You Can Celebrate the Hockey Puck’s “Birthday” on February 7th.

The word “puck” was first recorded in the February 7th, 1876 edition of the Montreal Gazette, so the NHL regards this date as the hockey puck’s birthday—even though they’d already been used for decades by then.

5. A Swedish Player Once Scored By Dropping the Puck Out of His Pants.

When the puck got inadvertently lodged in Alexander Wennberg’s trousers, he skated behind the goalie and squatted until it plopped out. Amazingly, the goal actually counted, as seen in the video above at the 18-second mark.

6. Angry Voters Once Took to Mailing Hockey Pucks.

In 2000, the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation urged the country’s citizens to protest their government’s $12 million bailout of domestic NHL franchises. How? By mailing oodles of hockey pucks to then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien. According to group president Walter Robinson, “When the rubber hits the Prime Minister’s office in a shower of hockey pucks, Mr. Chretien might have some sense knocked into him and respond.” The Prime Minister never revealed how many pucks he’d actually received.

7. The Fastest Puck Shot on Record Reached 114 Miles Per Hour.

The fastest slap shot was launched by KHL player Alexander Ryazantsev. The second-fastest shot was launched by fellow KHL-er Denis Kulyash and was recorded at 110.43 Mph. Zdeno Chara holds the record for fastest slapshot in an NHL game, when he fired one off at 105.9 Mph.

8. Fox Television Once Used a “High-Tech” Hockey Puck.

“Smart pucks” were released by Fox television in 1996. Also known as the “FoxTrax,” these high-tech gizmos sported a hidden microchip that transmitted an infrared signal to a series of computers which superimposed blue and red halos around the puck on television screens during play, making them easier to see. To see one in action, check out this clip from the 1996 All-Star Game.

Fans were outraged and players argued that the FoxTrax weren’t moving properly. Furthermore, each one cost $50,000—a hefty price for something built to get slapped around by a team of hockey players. Ultimately, the network retired these ill-fated contraptions for good the following year.

9. Pucks Can Actually Be Split During Games.

It’s certainly a rare occurrence, but forwards Shane Doan and Andrew Procho have each managed to break a puck in half against a goal post during the past 5 years in their respective leagues (as has center Patrick Kane). Check out Procho’s shot for yourself in the video above (jump to 0:22 for the clip in question).

10. “Ya Hockey Puck!” was Don Rickles’ Favorite Insult.

Though he claims he can’t remember where exactly it came from, “Don’t be a hockey puck!” has long been legendary insult comic Don Rickles’ catchphrase. This was cleverly referenced during the original Toy Story (1995) in which Mister Potato Head (voiced by Rickles) yells at an actual hockey puck.

11. The Average NHL Game Uses a Dozen Pucks.

Players are required to use frozen pucks which are easier to control than unaltered pucks, but these tend to thaw quickly. Thus, they’re constantly replaced by officials and an average of 12 come into play per game, though as many as 22 have been recorded. (The last NHL game to use only a single puck—which is currently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame—was in 1979.)

BONUS! Has anyone ever eaten a hockey puck?

Last year, an Arizona restaurant held a “Hockey Puck Eating Contest” in which contestants chowed down on frozen Ding-Dongs for a pair of playoff tickets. But has anybody ever ingested a real one? Though it’s never been confirmed, at least one goalie allegedly munched on an actual puck. Just when you thought Reddit couldn’t get any weirder, a goaltender using the site recently claimed to be devouring a puck in “small sliver[s]." Included was arguably the most unforgettable line in the history of sports writing: “I have found a high correlation between puck consumption and terrible, terrible diarrhea and stomach pains.”

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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