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5 Leagues That Didn't Make It

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At some point in 2009, the oft-delayed All American Football League might actually start playing games. With any luck, the upstart league will be able to carve away a little bit of the NFL's massive market while giving players like Eric Crouch and Peter Warrick another shot at gridiron glory. It's a tough proposition, though; history is littered with the tales of fledgling professional sports leagues that flamed out quickly. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. The National Bowling League

Most people probably only think about professional bowling when they flip past ESPN on a Sunday afternoon. In 1961, though, professional bowling seemed like such fertile ground for fans that one league wasn't sufficient. Enter the National Bowling League. That's right: league. The NBL wasn't going to be a bunch of solo hotshots out only for their own glory. Instead, the bowlers would play as teams from different cities, and at the end of the season they would compete in the World Series of Bowling. The bowlers really did work as teams; although the rules were largely similar to league bowling, at certain points of the game a bowler could swap himself out for a "wild card" sub to pick up a tough spare.


Unlike its main competition, the Professional Bowlers Association, the NBL didn't have a television deal, so it had to make the bulk of its cash on ticket sales. Matches took place in specially designed arenas that allowed spectators to perch around the lanes. These arenas could only hold 3,250 spectators at the most, though, and the owners had spent millions building the arenas and paying bowler salaries.

And top bowlers didn't want to leave the fledgling PBA to join the NBL. As a result, the mainstream sports media was largely indifferent to the league, and fans didn't show up in the expected throngs. The league debuted on October 12, 1961, and by December 16, the San Antonio Cavaliers franchise had gone under. The rest of the league unceremoniously followed suit five months later.

Although it was short-lived, the NBL had its own scandals. Legendary PBA bowler Don Carter was allegedly offered a bribe to join the rival league. As you'd expect in bowling, the bribe itself was decidedly unglamorous; Carter was supposedly promised a pig farm.

2. The World Football League

WFL-csonka.jpgMany secondary leagues suffer due to inferior player talent, but the WFL apparently sidestepped that problem by bringing in a number of big NFL stars for its inaugural 1974 season. By offering salaries well above the relatively low NFL wages of the day, league organizers lured stars like Larry Csonka (pictured below with Memphis Southmen teammates Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield) and Calvin Hill (Honolulu Hawaiians) into the league. Moreover, the WFL had several new rules that made the game more exciting. The league moved the goalposts from the front of the end zone, where they resided in the NFL at the time, to the back. Touchdowns were worth seven points instead or six, and in lieu of a kicked extra point after each score, teams played an "action point" from the five yard line. (Scoring on this play was worth a point.) The WFL seemed set to offer a fan-friendly alternative to the NFL.

With this star power and the novel rules, the WFL got off to a hot start in 1974. Teams averaged over 40,000 spectators for their first few games, and it looked like the NFL might have some real competition. The league's organizers talked optimistically of expanding the league to Europe and Asia.

Unfortunately, though, much of this success was illusory; most the people in these booming crowds had gotten their tickets for free or at extremely cut-rate prices.

Actual full-priced tickets proved to be a somewhat tougher sell. While the league had brought in some high-profile stars, the rank-and-file players were mostly guys who weren't good enough to make it in the NFL. The quality of play wasn't terrible, but basically, fans were only willing to attend these games as long as they didn't have to pay full fare for the experience.

By the end of its first twenty-game season, the league was teetering on the brink of insolvency. The lack of funds led to some pretty amusing stories: the MVP of the World Bowl (the league's Super Bowl equivalent) was to receive a cash bonus. Why cash? Supposedly the league didn't want sportswriters sneering that a check from the WFL would surely bounce. The money was piled on a table, and the game's MVPs pocketed the stacks after the game. According to legend, local citizens fed the Portland Storm's roster, and the Charlotte Hornets had their uniforms impounded for failure to pay a laundry bill.

Despite these dire financial straits, the WFL tried to make another run at the NFL's throne in 1975, but its owners ran out of money midseason. The league folded, and the Birmingham Vulcans, owners of a 9-3 record, won the championship by default. Several WFL personalities found NFL success, though. Portland Storm linebackers coach Marty Schottenheimer had a long career as an NFL head coach, and Philadelphia Bell wideout Vince Papale inspired the film Invincible by catching on with the Philadelphia Eagles.

3. Roller Hockey International

Remember inline skating? Vaguely? Back in 1993, it wasn't a fad; it was a new youth movement that was never going to die. And thus, the RHI was born to capitalize on it. The league had teams across the U.S. and Canada, and played with rules that were subtly different from the NHL's. Aside from the obvious lack of ice, teams had four skaters and a goalie instead of the NHL's five, and games consisted of four 12-minute quarters rather than three 20-minute periods. Teams competed for the Murphy Cup, which the Anaheim Bullfrogs won twice, cementing their place as the Red Wings of roller hockey.

The league operated from 1993 to 1997, took a year off in 1998, and then returned in 1999 for a final season/death wheeze. Like most leagues, it produced some quality players; Saint Louis Blues goaltender Manny Legace put in some time with the Toronto Planets.

4. International Volleyball Association

volleyball-mag.jpgIt's tough to find many specific details on this short-lived volleyball league. Teams competed from 1975 to 1979, and the IVA was revolutionary for being a coed pro sports league. The league's teams were all located in the western United States, although the El Paso-Juarez Sol made good on the "international" part of the association's name by paying tribute to the Mexican side of the border.


By all accounts, some truly world-class volleyball players spiked and set in the IVA, including Polish Olympic gold medalist Edward Skorek. The most famous player in league history, though, was undoubtedly former NBA star Wilt Chamberlain, who played for the Orange County Stars in 1977, possibly because of the coed rules. Chamberlain also served as the IVA's president and was enshrined in the IVA Hall of Fame.

5. The XFL

homer-xfl2.jpgThe NFL may have good football, but does it have attitude? Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon thought not, so in 2001 he launched the XFL, an alternative, rougher football league. Almost everything about the eight-team league was designed to be edgy, unlike that stodgy old NFL. Who needs a coin toss to determine possession when you can throw a ball on the ground and have players scrap for it? Why not let the public-address announcers trash talk the opposing team and its fans? Why not just let defensive backs push receivers at any point until the ball is thrown? And can't we finally let football cheerleaders play up their sex appeal after centuries of confining them to shapeless burlap robes? The XFL sought to answer all these questions.

Unfortunately for McMahon, the answers weren't quite what he anticipated. Having a pre-game scrum to determine possession is a fantastic way to injure players, trash-talking PA announcers are incredibly obnoxious, and receivers generally can't catch passes if they've been pushed to the ground. On top of that, there are certainly many reasonable complaints one could make about NFL cheerleaders, but "not skanky enough" doesn't appear anywhere on that list. The second-rate talent, combined with the rule allowing defensive backs to eviscerate receivers, kept scoring low and games excruciatingly boring. Even after the "you're allowed to bump receivers" rule was changed four games into the season, things didn't get much better. Grammarians everywhere turned up their noses at the league's rampant, inappropriate overuse of the letter "x," particularly in the names of the Memphis Maniax and Los Angeles Xtreme.

he-hate-me.jpgThis wrestling-style attitude did little to bring in fans, and after the Xtreme won the inaugural season's Million Dollar Game, the league ceased to Xist. League MVP Tommy Maddox spent some solid years as the Pittsburgh Steeler's quarterback, and league icon Rod "He Hate Me" Smart enjoyed some success as a kick returner for the Carolina Panthers. Perhaps the league's most enduring effect, though, was introducing the flying Skycam to football coverage. The aerial camera has since become an integral part of NFL and college football broadcasts.


Why did Mr. Smart put "He Hate Me" on the back of his jersey? Here's what he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2004:

"Basically, my brother's my opponent. After I win, he's gonna hate me. It is what it is. It's a saying I was saying when I'd feel something wasn't going my way. For example, (when) I was on the squad in Vegas and coach was putting other guys in, (if) I felt I'm better than them, you know, hey, 'he hate me.' See what I'm saying? Give me a chance. That's all I ask. It came from the heart. Within. The way I felt."

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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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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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