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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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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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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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