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How Your Favorite Sneakers Got Their Names

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getty images

We all know that Nike is named after the Greek goddess of victory, and the origin of "Air Jordan" is hardly obscure, but where did some other famous shoes and brands get their names? Here are the explanations for a few favorites:

1. Converse Chuck Taylor All Star

Nearly everyone's walked around with his name on their feet at some point, but who the heck is Chuck Taylor? Converse first introduced the All Star in 1917, but the company had a tough time moving many units of its fledgling basketball shoe against stiff competition from Spalding and several tire companies that were trying to horn in on the market for rubber-soled athletic kicks. Converse needed a charismatic salesman with some serious basketball street cred, and former Indiana high school hoops star Chuck Taylor needed a job. In 1921, he joined Converse and started making sneaker history.

Taylor used his basketball experience to suggest several improvements to the original All Star design, including a patch to protect the shoe's ankle. By 1923, the patch included a replica of Taylor's signature. For the next 40 years, Taylor traveled around the country selling All Stars out of the back of his Cadillac and putting on basketball clinics to help educate players on the game and show why they should wear All Stars when they took the court.

Interestingly, although Taylor's name was on nearly every pair of Chucks that ever left the factory, he didn't get a cut of the profits or any sort of commission. Instead, he was on salary the entire time he worked for Converse. The company has sold over 600 million pairs of Chucks, so even a few cents per pair would have amounted to a handsome fortune.

2. Reebok

The English shoemaker was originally part of J.W. Foster & Sons, a British business that dates back to 1895. In 1958, though, two of the Fosters decided to start an offshoot athletic shoe company. Their search for a name led them to thumb through a dictionary Joe Foster had won in a footrace as a boy. They decided that the rhebok, a speedy African antelope, was the perfect inspiration for their company. Wait, then why is the company's name spelled "Reebok" instead of the correct "Rhebok?" The dictionary young Joe Foster won was a South African edition, so it had the Afrikaans spelling rather than the English one.

3. Adidas

Many people believe that "Adidas" is an acronym for "All Day I Dream About Soccer," but the real origins of the name are decidedly less sporty. "Adidas" is a portmanteau of the name of Adi Dassler, the German businessman who started the company in 1949. Before starting Adidas, Dassler had been in the shoe business with his brother Rudi, and together the brothers made the shoes Jesse Owens wore for his triumph at the 1936 Olympics. In 1948, though, Adi and Rudi split to go take on their own projects. Adi's Adidas obviously flourished, but Rudi didn't do too badly for himself by starting a little shoe company he called Puma.

4. Keds

U.S. Rubber introduced the first shoes known as "sneakers" in 1917; because the shoes had rubber soles they allowed the wearer to sneak around quietly. The company had a great idea for what to call their canvas-topped creations, too: Peds, the Latin word for "feet." The only hitch was that someone already owned the rights to the name "Peds." To get around this little inconvenience, U.S. Rubber just slightly tweaked the name to "Keds."

5. Puma Clyde

The subtle suede Puma Clyde is another classic shoe with origins modern wearers might have missed. In 1973, Walt Frazier, the flamboyant and fashionable point guard of the New York Knicks, wanted his Puma basketball shoes to fit a little differently. Frazier thought he'd be more comfortable in a wider shoe and asked Puma if they could design him one. Puma was glad to give the dapper Frazier a hand, and he quickly signed on to endorse the revamped kicks. To tie the product even closer to Frazier's famously cool public persona, Puma gave the shoe Frazier's nickname, "Clyde," a moniker a Knicks trainer bestowed upon Frazier to honor his tendency to dress like famous bank robber Clyde Barrow.

6. PF Flyers

sneakers.pair.com

PF Flyers played a crucial role in one of the funniest sports movie scenes ever: the climax of The Sandlot, where they're revered for their ability to make you "run faster and jump higher." What does the "PF" stand for, though? Nothing magical, just "Posture Foundation." The Posture Foundation insole was invented in 1933 to help make athletic shoes more comfortable, and in 1937 BF Goodrich started making PF Flyers that could help athletes "play at full speed longer."

PF Flyers hold another important spot in sneaker history. In the 1950s they became the first shoe company to collaborate with a professional athlete on shoe designs when they built a series of sneakers to legendary Celtics guard Bob Cousy's specifications while Cousy appeared in PF Flyers ads.

7. ASICS

The ASICS we know now are descendants of the Onitsuka Company's designs that first came out in Japan in 1949. As Onitsuka grew and merged with other companies, it needed a new name. In 1977 it became the ASICS Corporation; the name is an acronym for the Latin phrase anima sana in corpore sano, or "a healthy soul in a healthy body."

8. Brooks

Brooks Running

As a loyal customer who buys a new pair of Brooks running shoes several times a year, I was pretty surprised to learn there was never a Mr. Brooks involved with the company. Actually, it was Morris Goldenberg who founded the company in Philadelphia in 1914. He decided not to go with his own name, and instead picked an Anglicized version of his wife's maiden name, Bruchs.

9. adidas Stan Smith

Tohlsson

Sneakerheads instantly recognize the adidas Stan Smith as a footwear icon, but they may not know that Stan Smith himself was a real tennis player who had a pretty nice career. Smith, a Californian, was a three-time tennis All American at USC and picked up the NCAA men's singles title in 1968. He then enjoyed a nice pro career in which he won Wimbledon in 1972 and the US Open in 1971. In 1971, adidas approached Smith about endorsing a tennis shoe that had originally been worn by Frenchman Robert Haillet during the 1960s. Thus, Haillet lost his chance at sneaker immortality while Smith will be on our feet for years to come.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated. 

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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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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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