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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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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.