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The 10 Most Bizarre Athlete Superstitions

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Since their livelihoods rely on consistently replicating physical motions, it's hardly surprising that professional athletes are creatures of habit. However, some stars take these rituals beyond their logical extremes. Jumping over the baselines when taking the field in baseball? Pretty standard. Wearing the same cup from high school on through your pro career like Mark McGwire reportedly did? Now we're getting a little more peculiar. Here are ten of our favorite truly absurd superstitions.

1. Kevin Rhomberg // MLB

Rhomberg played just 41 games in parts of three seasons with the Cleveland Indians from 1982-84. But in that short span, the outfielder managed to establish himself as possibly the big leagues' most superstitious player ever. Rhomberg's most peculiar superstition was that if someone touched him, he had to touch that person back. Although this compulsion was not as much of a liability as it might have been in basketball or football, it still led to some odd situations. If Rhomberg was tagged out while running the bases, he'd wait until the defense was clearing the field at the inning's end to chase down the player who'd touched him.

Rhomberg also refused to make right turns while on the field--his logic was that baserunners are always turning left. So if a situation forced him to make a right turn, he'd go to his left and make a full circle to get moving in the correct direction.

2. Caron Butler // NBA

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When most of us want a glass of something heavily caffeinated that fluoresces green, we can just reach for a Mountain Dew. Sadly for veteran small forward Caron Butler, he can't do the Dew whenever he wants anymore. As Butler told Dan Steinberg of D.C. Sports Bog, during his All-American years at the University of Connecticut and his early seasons in the NBA, his game routine included guzzling a two-liter bottle of the sugary soda. Butler would throw down half the bottle before tip-off and finish it off at halftime. That is, until he joined the Washington Wizards in 2005. The Wiz forced Butler to switch to a more traditional sports drink: Water.

3. Mike Bibby // NBA

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Like fellow NBA star LeBron James, Bibby was known to nervously bite and chew his nails during games. When relegated to the bench for a breather during games with the Sacramento Kings, Bibby would obsessively pick at his nails until he stumbled across a better solution: Using fingernail clippers on the bench. The clippers became his superstition, and whenever Bibby came to the bench for timeouts, someone would hand him a set so he could go to work on his nails.

4. Jason Terry // NBA

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Bibby and Terry, college teammates at Arizona, started another odd superstition while playing for the Wildcats. The restless pair slept in their uniform shorts the night before Arizona's appearance in the 1997 NCAA championship game against Kentucky on the logic that it would make the game feel like it was starting sooner. When Terry broke into the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, he decided to start wearing the shorts of the next day's opponent instead. This ritual is required Terry to procure a pair of uniform shorts from each opposing NBA team. Although his network of connections with equipment managers and former teammates has helped him out, it isn't fool-proof. While playing for Dallas in the 2006 NBA Finals he had to wear Mavericks shorts before each game since he couldn't find a pair of trunks from the opposing Miami Heat. 

That's not Terry's only superstition, though. He wears knee-high socks as a tribute to his father, which seems normal. The catch is that Terry wears five pairs of them whenever he's on the court; he claims the extra hosiery is more comfortable. Like former third baseman Wade Boggs, Terry also insists on eating chicken before each game, a practice he also says started with Bibby at Arizona, making the 1997 Wildcats the most superstitious team to ever win the NCAA title.

5. Moises Alou // MLB

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Most baseball players wear batting gloves to absorb some of the shock of making contact with the ball and to improve their grip on the bat. A handful eschew gloves in favor of a barehanded approach, though, most famously outfielder Alou. Alou did have a system for avoiding calluses and hardening his skin: He urinated on his hands throughout the season. Longtime New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada also employed this superstition to aid in his gloveless approach at the plate. The trick may be more gross than helpful, though: a 2004 piece in Slate questioned the value of this superstition since urine contains urea, a key ingredient in moisturizers that actually soften the skin.

6. Bruce Gardiner // NHL

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Gardiner spent five years as a forward in the NHL, most notably with the Senators. His superstition was even more unsettling than Alou's: before each game, Gardiner would dip the blade of his stick in the locker room toilet. Gardiner's strange superstition started in his rookie reason in Ottawa in 1996. After going several games without a point, he asked veteran Tom Chorske for advice. Chorske told Gardiner he was treating his stick too well and needed to teach the wood to respect him by dunking it in the toilet.

Although Gardiner was initially skeptical, after his cold streak extended for a few more games, he took Chorske's advice. He then got hot and started scoring, and he kept on hitting the bathroom before games. Gardiner eventually backed off of dunking his stick regularly, but he'd still go back to the tactic to end a slump. As he told NHL.com in 2007, "You tape it, you dunk it, and you don't touch it. I'd do anything for a couple of goals."

7. Ecuadorian National Soccer Team

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Ecuador's national team knew they needed help if they were to succeed at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Even after practicing and preparing as well as they could, they were still looking for an edge. They found it in Tzamarenda Naychapi, a mystic who The Guardian called a "witch doctor-cum-shaman-cum-priest-type-fella," to help enlist the aide of supernatural spirits. Naychapi supposedly visited each of the twelve stadiums being used in the World Cup and chased away any lingering evil spirits and worked a little magic on the pitches and goals themselves. By all accounts the magic worked; although Ecuador is not a traditional soccer powerhouse they defeated Poland and Costa Rica in group play to advance to the Round of 16, where they lost to England 1-0 on a David Beckham goal.

8. Turk Wendell // MLB

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The eccentric reliever pitched for four teams between 1993 and 2004, posting some solid seasons in that span. However, he's most remembered for his bizarre superstitions. Among Wendell's more notable quirks was his requirement that he chew four pieces of black licorice while pitching. At the end of each inning, he'd spit them out, return to the dugout, and brush his teeth, but only after taking a flying leap over the baseline. Wendell, an avid hunter, also took the mound wearing a necklace adorned with trophies from animals he had harvested, including mountain lion claws and the teeth of wild pigs and buffalo. When compared to these superstitions, Wendell's other little oddities (drawing three crosses in the dirt on the mound, always throwing the rosin bag down as hard as he could, and insisting figures in his contract end in 99 as a tribute to his jersey number) don't seem so strange.

9. NASCAR Drivers

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Drivers have their share of superstitions, including green cars being bad luck and reservations about carrying $50 bills. Possibly the most inexplicable, though, is their adamant refusal to deal with peanuts in their hulls. Specifically, the hulls seem to bother drivers since shelled peanuts or nuts in candy bars are perfectly kosher for the track.

No one is quite sure from where this superstition springs, but it has almost certainly been around since NASCAR's beginnings. One theory explored by Snopes traces the tradition back to a 1937 race in Nashville in which peanut shells were sprinkled on the cars of five drivers, all of whom crashed during the race. Another possible story holds that a member of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson's crew was eating peanuts when an engine blew, and the blame fell on the nuts themselves. Others claim that when racing was gaining popularity in the 1930s, mechanics would often find peanut shells from the nearby grandstands in the cylinders of engines that had failed. 

10. John Henderson // NFL

Lining up across from longtime Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Henderson would have been pretty terrifying under the best circumstances since he stands 6'7" and weighed 335 pounds in his playing days. The former University of Tennessee star had an even more intimidating pregame superstition during his days in Jacksonville, though: He would have assistant team trainer Joe Sheehan slap him open-handed across the face as hard as Sheehan possibly can. According to the Florida Times-Union, Henderson and Sheehan began the ritual during the 2003 season as a way to get Henderson amped up for the game by taking the day's first hit in a controlled environment in the locker room. Apparently the strategy worked, as Henderson twice made the Pro Bowl after Sheehan started unloading on him. This video above illustrates the superstition in all its glory with some NSFW language.

This piece originally appeared in 2008.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Stephen Missal
crime
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New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]

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