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5 Things You Didn't Know About Johnny Unitas

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The NFL preseason's in full swing, but instead of handicapping battles for backup QB jobs, let's take a look at five things you might not know about one of the greatest signal callers of all time: Johnny Unitas.

1. He Could Go Both Ways

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When Unitas was a high school senior from Pittsburgh, nobody could really see that the halfback/quarterback combo would one day become an NFL legend. Notre Dame took one look at his six-foot, 138-pound build and decided against giving him a scholarship, so the son of Lithuanian immigrants ended up at the University of Louisville.

Unitas' collegiate career at Louisville, which wasn't even part of the NCAA at the time, largely consisted of him playing very well on mediocre-to-bad teams. During the 1952 season, however, the sophomore was all over the field. The team decided that its players would play both defense and offense, so in addition to playing QB, Unitas also served as a linebacker, safety, and return man. By all accounts the nimble Unitas was pretty tough as a safety, but his team slumped to a 3-5 record, including a humiliating 59-6 blowout at Tennessee.

2. He Could Have Been a Steeler

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Although Unitas enjoyed a solid college career, injuries nagged him his senior year and hurt his pro prospects. When the 1955 NFL Draft rolled around, the Pittsburgh Steelers eventually took Unitas with the 102nd pick, all the way down in the ninth round.

The Steelers already had three quarterbacks on the roster, though, and the team really only planned to carry three QBs throughout the season. The Steelers' coaching staff didn't give Unitas much of a chance to show his stuff, either. Art Rooney, Jr., part of the legendary family of Steelers owners, later said, "The coaches would run the quarterbacks through drills, and sometimes the whistle would blow before John even got a turn."

The Steelers ended up cutting Unitas after the last game of the 1955 preseason. The man they felt was a better fit for the third QB job, Ted Marchibroda, only started 11 games his entire NFL career, all of them in the Steelers' dismal 4-7 1956 season.

3. He Didn't Give Up, Though

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After the Steelers cut Unitas, things must have looked pretty grim for him. He had a wife and children, and he needed to make some cash to support them. Unitas took construction and steel work jobs around Pittsburgh to make ends meet while also playing QB for a local semipro team, the Bloomfield Rams. The Rams were quite literally a sandlot team; they had to sprinkle oil or water on the field to keep it from getting too dusty since there was no grass. For the whopping paycheck of $3 per game, Unitas also played safety and handled the team's punting duties while wearing a decidedly un-QB-like number 45 jersey.

Unitas was right to hang with it in the sticks for a season, though. In February of 1956, the Baltimore Colts asked Unitas and his Bloomfield teammate Jim Deglau, a lineman, to come to Baltimore for a workout. Although Unitas was cash-strapped and worried that a failed audition in Baltimore would effectively end his football career, he and Deglau borrowed gas money and hit the road.

Unitas, of course, played like Johnny Unitas in his audition. The Colts shelled out a whopping $7,000 to sign Unitas as their backup QB for the 1956 season.

4. He Wasn't Quite a Natural, Though

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Unitas began the 1956 season on the bench behind starter George Shaw, but that arrangement didn't last long. Shaw broke his leg during the Colts' fourth game, and Unitas found himself thrust into the spotlight against a very good Bears team.

Baltimore fans couldn't have liked what they saw in the early going. Unitas' first pass found its way into the hands of the Bears' J.C. Caroline, who ran the pick back for a touchdown. The jitters didn't calm down after this first play, either. On the next play from scrimmage Unitas ran into running back Alan Ameche during a bungled handoff and fumbled the ball back to the Bears. The Bears marched down the field for a score, just as they did when Unitas botched and fumbled a second handoff later in the game.

When the smoke cleared, Unitas' NFL debut ended in a 57-28 rout. It wasn't a total catastrophe, though; Unitas got his first NFL TD pass with a 36-yard strike to frequent target Jim Mutscheller.

5. He Didn't Lack Confidence

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Unitas' first major triumph was leading the Colts to victory in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, which would later become known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and is sometimes credited for propelling the NFL to greater national popularity. The score was tied at 17 at the end of regulation, which led to a sudden death OT.

Although Baltimore didn't start with the ball in OT, the Colts' defense forced a punt to put the ball in Unitas' hands. Unitas marched 80 yards down the field while calling all of his own plays, and Ameche punched the ball into the end zone with a one-yard run to win the championship.

The signature play of the drive was a long pass down the sideline from Unitas to his main receiving weapon, Hall of Famer Raymond Berry. After the game, reporters asked Unitas if making that kind of throw in a sudden death game was sort of dangerous. After giving it some thought, Unitas responded, "Nothing's dangerous if you know what you're doing."

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

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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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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