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The Humble Early Days of the NFL Draft

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When NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced Mario Williams as the Houston Texans’ first overall pick, he signaled not just the start of the 2006 NFL Draft, but also that the draft itself had become a standalone event. That 2006 draft was the first one held at Radio City Music Hall, a coronation of how far the NFL has come both as a business and as a cultural phenomenon. It’s going to seem impossible as you watch this Acadamy Awards-level production in primetime tonight, but there once was a time when nobody even knew the draft happened.

The First Draft

The draft’s evolution from business meeting to months-long obsession had been a long time coming. The first draft, held in 1936 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Philadelphia, consisted of nine rounds and was essentially uncovered by the media. Most newspapers around the country didn’t even publish the results, not to mention scouting reports or mock drafts.

WWII

During World War II, the NFL stopped calling it the “draft” since there was a different draft underway, instead referring to it as the “preferred negotiations list,” a much more professional term that would fit in well amongst modern NFL legalese. Considering a lot of football talent was being sent to war—the skills required to be a good football player and soldier overlap considerably—the league expanded to 30 rounds, assuming most of their picks would end up in Europe or the Pacific instead of the gridiron.

Post-War

After the war, as American life returned to normalcy and the NFL’s popularity slowly grew, so too did coverage of league news. Newspapers like the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times ran occasional brief scouting reports (Frank Finch’s semi-regular reports in the Los Angeles Times often began with “Dear Diary,” going on to provide snippets such as, “The backs are okay...but prospects up front are none too promising”), but the revelation of the time was publishing comprehensive draft results, usually breaking down the first ten rounds by team selections.

Starting in 1947, the NFL experimented with a bonus pick, in which the first overall pick was given not to the worst club, but to a random team via lottery (although no team could get a bonus pick twice). This practice lasted 11 years until the league recognized it for the terrible idea it was.

The AFL Draft Takes on the NFL

Like football itself, the NFL draft wasn’t an intriguing affair until it got some competition. Starting in 1959, the burgeoning American Football League held a draft in competition with the NFL’s, often selecting the same players who would then get to choose in which league they would play. “Our big inducement of competition with the National Football League is that we can just about guarantee a job to the players we draft,” Max Winter, General Manager of the Minneapolis-St. Paul team told the Los Angeles Times in November of 1959. (Ironically, this team would stay in the AFL for only one season before switching to the NFL and becoming the Vikings.) The AFL chose to hold their draft prior to the NFL’s, a bold but necessary move for the new league to attract players. Likely in response to this, the NFL reduced the number of rounds to twenty.

For the next several years, the AFL and NFL jockeyed to incentivize college players to sign with their respective leagues. The AFL offered an advantage by holding their draft in November during the collegiate football season (to the NCAA’s chagrin) while the NFL offered, as LSU star Billy Cannon articulated, “the better players and more security.”

The 1960 NFL Draft illustrates just how far the draft had come in terms of preparation and production. According to the Christian-Science Monitor, the draft took 11.5 hours “as coaches took their time making selections. They went to the telephone almost every round to call players and ask them, (1) will you play pro football, and (2) will you come to the NFL rather than the AFL.” This is a far cry from the modern draft, a year-round scouting process in which GMs ask players weeks in advance if they’re gay or if their mother is a whore.

As teams found they had more to consider on draft day, the draft itself took longer, lasting 19 hours in 1963 (still shorter than the three-day modern draft). For some reason that isn’t clear from newspaper accounts, the NFL decided to hold the 1964 draft via telephone and teletype, foreshadowing the millions of fantasy drafts held over the internet decades later. The 1965 draft, once again held in person, took an absurd 31 hours to complete, making recent drafts appear brisk by comparison. Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle accused the rival AFL of holding a “secret draft” in three of the previous five years in an effort to procure college talent. In a classic move of antagonism, the AFL then rescheduled their draft for the same day as the NFL’s.

The Merger...and ESPN

Soon after, the antagonism ceased and the two leagues merged, forming the basis for the NFL we know today, eliminating the competition which formed most of the draft’s intrigue. Nevertheless, the draft continued to grow in popularity, largely because the sport did so as well. In 1977, the draft was moved to late April or early May and reduced to 17 rounds. But the biggest and perhaps most significant change to the NFL draft occurred in 1980 when it was televised by ESPN for the first time.

The 1980 ESPN broadcast is barely recognizable from the effervescent glow you’ll see this April, partly due to technological changes, but also because of the draft itself. The 1980 version was held in the New York Sheraton’s ballroom with team officials huddling over each other, with barely enough elbow room to lean over and cough. In retrospect, the 1980 draft seems more like a middle school group project than a professional sports league; you could easily imagine a delegate from each team assigned with trying to overhear other teams at adjacent tables.

In 1984, Mel Kiper Jr. and his perplexingly consistent haircut became the first dedicated draft analyst, kicking off the age of year-long draft obsession. Today, the draft is televised on ESPN and NFL Network. Player workouts are broadcast live on ESPN weeks before the draft while analysts debate whether what we’re watching actually means anything with respect to the player’s draft position, which will then later be debated as to whether it actually means anything. This is to say, the draft has become so big that we don’t even know how much it matters anymore. In a way, everything has come full circle, just with a lot more talking.

All photos courtesy Getty Images

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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