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5 Things You Didn't Know About Lou Holtz

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Now that he's giving occasionally surreal pep talks and diagnoses to NCAA football teams as part of ESPN's college pigskin studio crew, it's easy to forget that Lou Holtz was one of the preeminent coaches in the college game until fairly recently. Let's look at five things you might not know about Coach Lou:

1. A Young Bill Clinton Had His Back

Throughout his coaching career, Holtz insisted that his players perform well on the field and behave off of it. Sounds like a pretty sound policy, but it didn't always make him popular with players or win-at-all-costs boosters. In 1977, Holtz's first season at Arkansas, he found himself in a pickle. Star running back Ben Cowins, top receiver Donny Bobo, and another player were involved in an incident with a woman in a players' dorm. The woman ended up undressed, and when Holtz caught wind of the story he suspended all three players for the Razorbacks' Orange Bowl clash with Oklahoma.

young-clintonRunning back Cowins was a decent NFL prospect, and he needed the national exposure of the Orange Bowl to pump up his draft stock. He hired an attorney who filed a suit seeking an injunction to allow the three suspended players to appear in the Orange Bowl. Once Holtz came under legal fire, the university quickly sought top-notch counsel for him in the form of the Arkansas Attorney General, a promising young lawyer named Bill Clinton.

With the help of Clinton and his staff, Holtz's legal team defended the coach in U.S. District Court, and the players eventually withdrew their lawsuit. Obviously, it was a victory for team discipline, but wouldn't losing the offense's two biggest weapons kill the Razorbacks' Orange Bowl chances against the mighty Sooners? Not quite. Backup running back Roland Sales had an epic 205-yard, two-touchdown game, and the sixth-ranked Arkansas squad crushed number-two Oklahoma 31-6.

2. His Game Didn't Translate to the Pros

Holtz was a hot up-and-coming coaching talent in 1976. From 1969 to 1971 he'd helmed the College of William & Mary Tribe on a successful run that included what remains the school's only bowl appearance, a berth in the 1970 Tangerine Bowl. Holtz then jumped to North Carolina State and led the Wolfpack to four bowls in four years while piling up a 31-11-2 record.

Following the 1975 campaign, Holtz jumped to the pros to coach the New York Jets. While making the leap to the NFL seemed like a great opportunity, Holtz's time with the big boys turned out to be a complete debacle.

Even before the games started, Holtz's coaching tactics seemed a bit out of place in the NFL; he lined his players up by size for the national anthem and wrote a team fight song that none of the players wanted to sing.

The 1976 Jets stumbled out of the gate with four straight losses, including a humiliating 46-3 loss to the Broncos in Week 2. When the team, which was quarterbacked by an aging Joe Namath, saw its record fall to 3-10, Holtz quit before the season was even over. (Broadway Joe certainly didn't help Holtz any by completing less than half of his pass attempts.) In a recent interview with Chris Russo on Sirius XM, Holtz said he told Jets ownership that he planned to step down at the end of the season, and he was told to pack his bags immediately.

To his credit, Holtz admitted he bungled his time in the pros, saying, ''God did not put Lou Holtz on this earth to coach in the pros." He recovered nicely by grabbing the head-coaching job at Arkansas before the 1977 season.

3. His Friendship With Jesse Helms Cost Him

jesse_helmsWhen Holtz was at North Carolina State, he became chummy with North Carolina's ultraconservative Senator Jesse Helms. The two men continued their friendship even after Holtz moved on to Arkansas, and in 1983 Holtz appeared in a pair of commercials endorsing Helms. The people of Arkansas were less than delighted to see one of their state employees dabbling in another state's politics, but the move was particularly toxic for Holtz because Helms was in the midst of spearheading a charge to block Martin Luther King Day from becoming a national holiday.

As the outrage over the Holtz-Helms connection gained steam, Holtz resigned under pressure from his Arkansas job on December 19, 1983. He landed on his feet with the head-coaching gig at Minnesota and quickly tried to distance himself from political issues. Upon arriving in Minnesota, Holtz met with Governor Rudy Perpich and publicly told the popular Democrat, "I assure you this, I will have nothing to do with politics."

4. He Was a Golden Gopher For Life. Except Not.

When Holtz went to the University of Minnesota, he was under the impression that he was signing a lifetime contract. He wanted one exception, though: an out clause that let him leave to take the head coaching job at Notre Dame. The school agreed, but when Holtz received his copy of the lifetime contract, there was no "Notre Dame clause" in it. He refused to sign, and the Gophers eventually gave him a clause that allowed him to leave to take any job he wanted. Holtz's caution was justified; he got the Notre Dame job just two years later.

5. He's Quick With a Quip

Although Holtz had a well-deserved reputation as a motivator, some of his most memorable moments came when he was dishing well-timed one-liners, usually at his own expense. When Arkansas fans pelted the field with oranges to celebrate the 1977 Orange Bowl berth, Holtz observed, "Thank God we didn't get invited to the Gator Bowl."

During his first season as head coach at South Carolina in 1999, the Gamecocks went 0-11, prompting Holtz to dryly note, "We raise more money per win than any school in the land." Later, when Holtz had restored the Gamecocks' program to the point that one writer picked the team to win the SEC in a preseason poll, Holtz deadpanned, "[The writer] probably voted in crayon."

Another classic Holtz story comes from an attempt to make a little money early in his career by selling cemetery plots. His wife, Beth, warned, "You can't sell anything." Holtz later triumphantly joked, "She was wrong. By the end of the summer, I'd sold our stereo, our car, and our television."

Bob Hope Once Bailed Him Out

One bonus anecdote this week: Holtz and the late Bob Hope were pals and often played golf together. On at least one occasion, the friendship really paid dividends for Holtz. The coach flew to Milwaukee for a speaking engagement in July 1983, and after a ride in a sweltering taxi, Holtz badly needed a shower before stepping to the podium.

There was just one problem, though: when Holtz got to his hotel room, his key broke off in the lock. When maintenance couldn't open the door, the front desk told Holtz that unfortunately they were totally booked. When Holtz began to loudly despair, another guest opened his door to ask for a little peace and quiet. Holtz recognized the complaining voice as Hope's, and after a big laugh, the comedian let the coach crash in his room.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.


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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.