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The First Time News Was Fit To Print, XVIII: Sports

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Every week, mental_floss wanders into the archives of The New York Times to find the first time The Times covered a particular subject. This installment is of the greatest hits variety, with a focus on the world of sports. If you have a suggestion for a future edition, leave us a comment.

Lance Armstrong

May 13, 1991

Armstrong May Not Win, But Watch This Space
lance.jpgLance Armstrong is a boy doing a man's job, a 19-year-old American amateur racing against some of the world's best professional bicycle riders. He will not win the 11-day Tour Du Pont, which stopped here today for a circuit race. At the end of the 1,100 miles, however, he may be among the leaders. But he will certainly leave an impression. He has already. He is the star of the United States national amateur team, one of the 15 international teams in this race.

* * *
Many racing people liken Armstrong to Greg LeMond, the American who has won three of the last five Tour de France races. Not Armstrong. "I'm not the next Greg LeMond," he said. "I'm the first me."

Keep reading for Kobe Bryant, Gatorade, George Steinbrenner, Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and more. Plus Twister, which is sort of sporty, I guess.

Gatorade

August 27, 1967

Chocolate-Flavored Soft Drinks And Slush Are Selling Briskly
gatorade_bottle.jpg Perhaps the most unusual soft drink to be announced in some years is a lemon-lime- flavored product called Gatorade, which will be produced by Stokely-Van Camp, Inc., food packer of Indianapolis. The new product, not yet on the market, is a water solution of glucose, inorganic salts and flavorings and was designed to quench thirst, particularly during periods of physical exertion. It has been tested in Florida by the University of Florida athletes to quench their thirst in training periods and during actual competition. It is said by Stokely-Van Camp to be absorbed by the body 12 times faster than water.

Jackie Robinson

October 29, 1939

jrobinson.jpgUCLA Triumphs Over Oregon
Two spectacular plays marked UCLA's 16-6 victory over Oregon before 40,000 in Memorial Coliseum today. The game knocked the Webfoots out of the undefeated group in the Pacific Coast Conference.

A 45-yard forward pass by Kenny Washington to Jackie Robinson, good for 66 yards, brought one touchdown, and Robinson broke the Oregon spirit with an 82-yard spring for the second Bruin tally.

George Steinbrenner

December 13, 1955

steinbrenner.jpgWildcats Dismiss Saban And Staff
The new broom swept clean today at Northwestern as Stu Holcomb, hired as athletic director three days ago, dismissed the head football coach, Lou Saban, and his entire staff
* * * * *
The 34-year-old Saban was let out along with the line coaches, Bud Svendsen and Nathan Johnson; the backfield coach, Al Pesek, and the end coach, George Steinbrenner. All were told their one-year contracts would not be renewed when they expire March 1.

January 4, 1973
(the first mention after buying the New York Yankees)

CBS Sells The Yankees For $10 Million
"We plan absentee ownership as far as running the Yankees is concerned," Steinbrenner said. "We're not going to pretend we're something we aren't. I'll stick to building ships."

Nerf

December 13, 1970

nerf.jpegToy Industry is not Child's Play
Topper's Dawn doll was one of the year's best sellers in toys, as were other toys heavily advertised on television like Mattel's Hot Wheels (miniature cars), Parker's Nerf ball (an "indoor" ball), Remco's Dune Buggy Wheelies, Marx's Big Wheel (tricycles) and Kenner's SSP Racers.

Kobe Bryant

February 27, 1996

kobebryant.gifA High School Star Ponders His Future
Much of the anticipation was for a slender, 6-foot-6-inch, 17-year-old senior for Lower Merion, Kobe Bryant. Bryant is the highest scorer in the history of southeastern Pennsylvania preps, recently passing Overbrook's Wilt Chamberlain, among others; a player whose coach said could become the next Michael Jordan, and one who, the school's athletic director said, has attracted as many pro scouts to his games as college scouts.
* * *
Will he become the next Kevin Garnett? Last season Garnett, a 6-11 forward, went directly from Farragut High School in Chicago to the Minnesota Timberwolves of the National Basketball Association, one of only a handful of players to make such a leap over the past 20 years"¦.Garnett failed to make the requisite 700 score on the Scholastic Assessment Test and would have been forced to sit out a year if he had decided to go to college. That, he said, was the reason he turned pro. And now, at age 19, and after some uneasy early going, he is averaging 23 minutes a game and appears to be adjusting nicely in the pros.

New York Jets

April 16, 1963

Titans Get A New Coach (Ewbank) And A New Name (Jets)
NYJets.jpgWilbur (Weeb) Ewbank, as expected, was appointed yesterday as coach and general manager of New York's American Football League team for three years. But the name he will be expected to cover with gridiron glory was, unexpectedly, announced as the Jets. It used to be the Titans. The Jets, which rhymes with Mets, was selected from more than 300 possible names submitted by friends, enemies and advertising agencies.
* * * * *
The Jets symbolizes the site of Shea Stadium (where the Jets think they'll play this fall) between two major airports, the spirit of modern times and the speed and eagerness of all concerned. Gothams, Borros and Dodgers were other leading contenders. Dodgers was discarded because the baseball people were not in favor. Borros (a pun on boroughs) was discarded because there was fear the team would be called the jackasses, and Gothams was dismissed because someone said that it would be shortened to Goths "“ "and you know they weren't such nice people."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

June 4, 1971

Biggest Name in NBA: Jabbar
kareemBucks.jpg For Oscar Robertson, it will be a chance to "listen and learn"; for Lew Alcindor, a "return to the fountainhead."

These were the terms in which the two basketball stars today described their upcoming tour of six African countries on behalf of the state department.
* * * * *
Twice during the short news conference Alcindor asked to be called by his Muslim name, Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

"I first used the name in 1969," he said, "but now that I am going overseas to represent my country, I would appreciate that courtesy.""¦.Alcindor said he didn't expect the [Milwaukee] Bucks to change his name in their advertising "because I've become famous with it. I do expect people to use my Islamic name when they're talking to me."

Yankee Stadium

December 18, 1921

Yankee Stadium to Seat 80,000 Fans
YankeeStadium.jpgThe structure will represent the most recent "“ in fact, the up-to-the-minute "“ discoveries and developments in stadium construction, with drawbacks noted in other stadia eliminated. Particular attention will be given to looking after the convenience of women patrons and making them as comfortable as possible. The tribe of female fans is expected to increase speedily as soon as the new park is thrown open.
* * * * *
All around the outside of "Yankee Stadium," which is to be the official name of the place, an areaway seven feet in width will be left in order to provide for future development of stores and storage places. This is a novel feature in such plants.

Don Mattingly

September 2, 1980

Yankee Hopefuls Face Crossroad At Greensboro
mattingly1.jpgDon Mattingly, a 19-year-old outfielder from Evansville, Ind., hit in the vicinity of .370. He has a knack for turning fastballs into line drives. Mattingly's fielding has been questionable, but he improved after working with Ken Berry, the two-time Gold Glove winner who is now a Hornet coach.
* * * * *
Kim Mattingly, 17, left high school to marry Don"¦.Being married to a minor league player is lonely, Kim says. There are so many bus trips and so many days with nothing to do. Some of the wives look forward to the games as much as the players do. Kim Mattingly likes to get out and walk around the stadium and talk to fans and the wives and girlfriends of other players. She says she realizes that hers is strictly a supporting role to her husband. "When he's happy, I'm happy," she says. "When he goes 0 for 8, then he gets grumpy and he's grumpy to me too."

Twister

September 13, 1967

twister3.jpgAdvertising: Liquor and Games

"Twister," by Milton Bradley, described as "a rather zany stocking-feet, body-action game for adults," is about to become involved in a nationwide tie-in with Seagram's 7-Crown, and you know what that is.

Into 15,000 liquor stores are going 48,900 pieces of display material that will include a "Quick As A Flash Party Book" and recipes based on the Twister theme.

This is reputed by the first tie-in between game maker and distiller. Next step "“ hotels on Park Place, Boardwalk and Skid Row!

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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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Library of Congress
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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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