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Why the NFL Can't Play on Friday and Saturday (and Other Times Congress Interfered with Football)

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This season, the NFL added a weekly Thursday night game, which puts professional football on TV three nights a week. Later on, after the bulk of the college football season is over, Saturday will also be in the mix—but for now, the league has to stay away from Friday and Saturday. Why? Because Congress said so.

After two attempts to sell the NFL's broadcasting rights were declared illegal because of antitrust concerns, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle headed to the Hill to whip up support. In 1961, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which exempted broadcasting rights by major sports leagues from antitrust decisions and cleared the way for the NFL to sell a broadcasting package to CBS, where all teams share the rights equally.

However, the law is more famous for helping to set the NFL broadcasting schedule. To protect fans of college and high school football, Congress also approved language that barred professional games on Fridays and Saturdays during the schools' seasons. The NFL still stays away from those days outside of rare exceptions, like when Christmas falls on a Friday. The Act also led to the blackout policy, which lets the league block games from a home market broadcast area if they have not sold out.

Sports and Antitrust Legislation

That's not the only time Congress has helped oversee the NFL's business. Sports are defined as interstate commerce, which means Congress has the Constitutional power to regulate them (hence the baseball steroid hearings and antitrust legislation inspired by and named after St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood). Most of the Congressional sports oversight has dealt with antitrust issues, including a high-profile piece of legislation in 1966 that exempted the merger of the NFL with the American Football League from antitrust laws.

In order to secure that bill, Rozelle had to make a few promises, notably that no franchise would move from its current city (that went out the window 16 years later, when the Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982) and football would be played only in stadiums with more than 50,000 seats. That meant no more Wrigley Field for the Chicago Bears; the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings had to move as well.

The bill's most significant secondary result, however, came from a bit of politicking. Rozelle leaned on Louisiana's Sen. Russell Long, the Democratic whip, and Rep. Hale Boggs, the acting majority leader, to help move the bill through, and they obliged by even redirecting it out of a committee with a potentially unfriendly chairman. Less than a month after the bill passed, Rozelle announced that New Orleans would be getting an NFL team: the Saints (read more about the tale here).

Steroids and Beyond

Congress has also weighed in on everything from HGH testing (members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have pressed the NFL on why it hasn't started testing) to concussions (the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the topic in 2010). The Senate Judiciary Committee was even set to hold a hearing on the Saints bounty scandal last summer until NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with committee chairman Dick Durbin and convinced him that the NFL was taking enough action.

And that's not to mention the four NFL alums who have been elected to Congress, including current Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) and former Reps. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). When asked by the New York Times about why he had gone into politics after football, Kemp joked that playing the game had given him "a good sense of perspective."

"I'd already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy," he said.

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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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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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