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Seven Curses That Seem To Be Doing Their Jobs (plus that Billy Goat one)

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Looks like the Curse of the Billy Goat has struck again, and with the Cubs' loss last weekend, it will be at least one more year until the curse is lifted. 2008 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series win, so a Series win next year would be pretty poetic anyway.

The story goes like this: Greek immigrant William "Billy Goat" Sianis, who owned the nearby Billy Goat Tavern, bought two tickets to game four of the 1945 World Series against Detroit. The second ticket was for his pet billy goat, Murphy. They made it into the game for a little while, but were thrown out after owner P.K. Wrigley complained about the goat's smell. In retaliation, Sianis cursed the Cubs and said they would never win a pennant or a World Series again. Looks like there might be something to that curse.

If you're not too superstitious, read on for seven more curses that seem to be doing their jobs. By the end of this post, you won't want to endorse soup, knit any presents or turn 27.

1. The Curse of William Penn

WilliamPenn.jpgWilliam Penn is not a man to be crossed. His wrath isn't confined to one sport "“ no, he has cursed all four professional sports teams in Philadelphia. A statue of Penn adorns the top of City Hall in Philly, and legend has it that an agreement was made that no building in town would ever stand taller than the statue. That was all fine and dandy until 1987, when One Liberty Place was constructed three blocks away from City Hall, dwarfing William Penn by nearly 400 feet. Ever since that date, not one of the professional teams in Philly has won any of their respective championships. There may be hope, though "“ in June 2007, a new tallest-building-in-Philly record was set with the Comcast Center, which stands 58 stories. When the final beam was raised, the iron workers attached a William Penn figurine to the top of it, officially making him the tallest thing in town again. We'll see if it appeases Mr. Penn. It hasn't appeared to yet... along with the Cubs, the Phillies lost their hopes at a 2007 World Series win last weekend.

2. Sports Illustrated, Campbell's Soup and the Madden NFL video game series

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All three seem to have one thing in common: whenever NFL players appear on their covers (on the can, in the case of the soup), he will either be injured soon afterward or be cursed with an exceptionally poor performance. I won't cite all of the instances that this has held true, because it is pretty overwhelming. SI has a whole site dedicated to their jinx. Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Marshall Faulk and Ray Lewis were all injured after appearing on the Madden cover. The Campbell's Soup curse applies to Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, and yes, Donovan McNabb. Again. As the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles (see 'The Curse of William Penn'), he may very well be the most cursed player in sports history.

3. The Sweater Curse

CosbySweater.jpgNot all curses are sports-related. Any knitter worth his or her salt will tell you about the Sweater Curse. Legend has it that after spending much time, effort and money to create a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will fail soon after giving them the garment. I am a knitter and have yet to gift anyone a sweater...although I'll admit this is more a matter of skill than superstition. (Note: This is the best picture we found in a search for "cosby sweater." He was a pitchman for Texas Instruments in the 1980s. OK, back to the list.)

4. The Curse of Tippecanoe

tecumseh.jpgBroken but still worth mentioning, The Curse of Tippecanoe was placed in 1811, when William Henry Harrison defeated Tecumseh (at right) and his brother Tenskwatawa in battle. They cursed Harrison "“ and all future Presidents. For the next 120 years, every president who was elected on a 20-year interval would die before his term officially ended. Harrison was elected in 1840 and died of pnumonia the next year. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley, respectively elected in 1860, 1880 and 1900, were all assassinated. Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, suffered a stroke before his term was up. Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected in 1940, had a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Granted, this was during his fourth term, which would not be allowed by today's laws. John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was, of course, assassinated. It was Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who finally broke the curse. He narrowly escaped being assassinated, however, so it wasn't for a lack of effort on Tecumseh's part.

5. The Omen

TheOmen.jpgIt wouldn't be a post written by me if I didn't work horror movies in somewhere. I have a legitimate reason, though: both The Omen and Poltergeist are plagued by curses.

The Omen author and scriptwriter David Seltzer's plane to the filming location in the U.K. was struck by lightning, and so was the movie's star Gregory Peck's. They were on two separate planes. Poor Gregory Peck kept just barely escaping aviation disaster "“ in another incident, he canceled a reservation he had on a flight. The flight he canceled crashed and killed everyone on board.

The hotel where director Richard Donner was staying was bombed. And on the very first day of shooting, the main members of the crew got in a head-on collision. Even those barely associated with the movie couldn't escape: a warden at the safari park used for a scene in the movie was killed by a lion less than 24 hours after the scene was shot.

Finally, the incident that I find the creepiest is that special effects artist John Richardson, who created the famous beheading scene, was injured on the set of a movie a year later. His girlfriend was beheaded in the same accident.

6. Poltergeist

poltergeist.jpgThe actresses who played sisters in the original movie both died at terribly young ages: Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1982. Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died in 1988 of septic shock.

Why the curse? Supposedly, real human remains were used as props for the movie. The actress who played the mom in the movie, JoBeth Williams, said she was told the skeletons used in the swimming pool scene were the real deal. She also said that when she would get back to her house after filming Poltergeist every day, the pictures on her wall would all be crooked. She would move them back to their rightful positions, only to find them crooked again when she got home the next day.

7. The 27 Club

Forever27.jpgFinally, readers who are 27, beware, lest you join the 27 Club. Only people who die at the age of 27 are allowed to join, and, OK, they also happen to be famous rock stars. The illustrious list includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Pigpen McKernan (founding member of the Grateful Dead). Although these are the most famous, other musicians who died at the same young age include bluesman Robert Johnson; Dave Alexander, the bassist for Iggy Pop and the Stooges; Peter Ham, the keyboardist/guitarist for Badfinger; and Kristen Pfaff, the bass guitarist for Hole.

I know there are other curses, especially sports-related ones. Let me know what other curses I should be avoiding.

Previously on mental_floss:

Quiz: Discontinued Ben & Jerry's Flavor or Band I Found On MySpace?
Six Cool Plants I Would Find A Way To Kill
12 Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered
Strange Gravestones
Five Ballpark Promotions That Went Wrong

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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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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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