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If You Blow Up Disco Records, They Will Come: Memorable Sports Promotions

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Long live sports promotions, those marketing brainstorms that gave us Ted Turner riding an ostrich around Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and, on another occasion, pushing a baseball on hands and knees around the infield.

With his nose.

Turner won that pre-game contest against pitcher Tug McGraw -- that is if one can be declared a winner after suffering so many facial nicks and cuts he appears to have shaved in a dark room with a machete.

Nobody does kitsch like Americans. And frankly, aside from minor league baseball it's a dying industry at our ballparks just when we need it the most.

In this economy where fans are asked to make a choice -- season tickets or sending the kids to college -- we would survive a return to those unsophisticated days of entertaining the customer at the risk of being called bush league.

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Or -- in the case of Disco Demolition Night, which "celebrated" its 30th anniversary this summer -- at the risk that comes with the marriage of strange bedfellows -- record albums and explosives.

That proved a more combustible pairing than Whitney and Bobby. So there's no need to recreate that.

But the Lake County Captains, a Cleveland minor league farm team, did borrow an idea from the 1970s this past week when it held "Nickel Beer Night." For one hour only, there was a limit of two five-ounce cups of beer per customer.

In 1974, the Indians followed a successful "Beer Night" promotion in Texas with "Ten Cent Beer."

The drunk-fest involved streakers, base stealers (literally) and fans who stormed the field and attacked the opposing team. Cleveland players had to wield bats to come to the aid of the Rangers players. Texas was awarded a forfeit.

Home plate umpire Nestor Chylak, who tried to act nonchalant when a woman ran from the seats to home plate and exposed her breasts to him, later called it, "a complete lack of brain power on the parts of some people."

So those are the parameters. Ten Cent Beer Night and Disco Demolition Night.

OK, and Ball Night, a promotion held by the Dodgers in L.A. that proved an axiom: don't give people who may become either drunk or irate anything that can be used as a projectile.

In other words, I would espouse neither "Ball Night" or "Javelin Night."

Even the tackiest of sports promotions (and Ted Williams Popsicle Night commemorating the cryogenically frozen baseball great is my winner in that category) are an acknowledgment that the people who run leagues and teams at least recognize that the product on display is not always enough to keep us riveted to our seats.

v-martI'm not sure when I first fully appreciated that glint of recognition. It was long before this past week for sure when the Cleveland Indians, the team that plays where I live, held the standard-for-the-day giveway: Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night.

Martinez is a popular player and three-time All-Star. Bobbleheads are becoming collector's items and thus commodities.

Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night was held Saturday.

The problem was Victor Martinez was traded to Boston Friday.

Timing is everything. At home plate. And in the marketing department.

Maybe I fully realized that something memorable can be artificially created one night during the 1987 Olympic Sports Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. At the boxing venue one evening, a man in a tuxedo walked to the middle of the ring and bided his time.

Came the announcement, "Ladies and gentlemen, to honor America please rise for the whistling of our national anthem."

I can't remember the Olympic hopefuls who fought. But anthem whistling? You don't forget that.

A writer friend from Boston heard the anthem played on an accordian in Liberace's home town that same year. Together, we were in Moscow for the 1986 Goodwill Games -- a Turner creation -- when women in babushkas raced baby carriages as part of the Opening Ceremonies.

Even the Soviets seemed to understand what Mike Veeck, who inherited the promotional genius of his father, Bill, meant when he said, "I don't worship at the Church of Baseball; if you play to the purists, the park is going to be 35 percent filled."

empty-seatsLook around at the ballparks in Major League Baseball as the summer wanes right along with hopes of contention. This is prime time for organizations calling up young players from the farm system to look to the minor leagues for inspiration in the marketing departments.

Look to the people who gave us Speed Dating Night (exactly what it sounds like) and Silent Night.

That one was a Mike Veeck special. Some fans covered their mouths with duct tape to help fight the urge to talk. They held up signs such as "Boo" and "Hey Beer Man." As a subtle touch, librarians and golf tournament marshalls replaced the regular ushers. [Photo Credit: The Baseball Collector.]

You can argue the minors are the perfect arena for such schtick. But there's no copyright on fun.

Sometime after he took part in a mattress stacking competition and raced motorized bathtubs -- and before he put on a uniform, told his manager to take the night off and led his 16-loss-in-a-row Braves to a 17th consecutive loss -- Ted Turner had a famous exchange with commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

"Why can't you be like everybody else?" Kuhn asked.

Replied Turner, "Because I'm in last place."

And since the only thing being blown to smithereens were Atlanta's pennant hopes, no harm was done in the making of a promotional legend.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for The Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com.

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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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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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