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Shoeless, Yogi & Catfish? The Stories Behind 16 Athlete Nicknames

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Floss editor extraordinaire Jason English recently found an interesting fact: Reggie Jackson's famous "Mr. October" nickname was originally a derisive jab from teammate Thurman Munson when Jackson was struggling his way through the 1977 playoffs. Soon after Munson coined the mocking nickname, Jackson started hitting like his normal awesome self, and the name stuck as a testament to Reggie's slugging prowess.

What about the famous or unusual nicknames of other athletes? Here are the back-stories on a few notable ones:

1. Pelé

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History's greatest soccer star got his nickname when he couldn't pronounce the name of local soccer team Vasco da Gama's goalkeeper Bilé. Friends teased the young soccer player about getting tongue-tied, and soon the mispronunciation became his lifelong mononym.

2. "Oil Can" Boyd

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The longtime MLB starting pitcher took his odd nickname from his hometown of Meridian, Mississppi. In Meridian some folks refer to beer as "oil," and apparently as a young man Dennis Ray Boyd enjoyed a tipple or two, hence the nickname.

3. Chili Davis

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The first Jamaican ever to play in the big leagues got his unique nickname from a terrible childhood haircut that prompted a friend to question whether the barber had used a chili bowl to guide his clippers.

4. "Three Finger" Brown

Hall of Fame pitcher Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown's nickname doubled as an accurate description of his pitching hand. As a young man Brown accidentally fed his hand into the family farm's feed chopper, which mangled the digits and lopped off most of his index finger. Although the remaining mangled digits disqualified Brown from working as a hand model, they helped him put a ridiculous amount of spin on his pitches, which turned him into a groundball machine.

5. "Hot Rod" Williams

Everyone's favorite longtime Cleveland Cavaliers big man "“ sorry, Brad Daugherty "“ got his famous nickname as a baby. Young John Williams would crawl backwards around the house while making motor-like noises, so his family started calling him Hot Rod.

6. Night Train Lane

The Hall of Fame cornerback took his famous nickname from a Buddy Morrow song of the same name. Dick Lane enjoyed the "Night Train" record his Los Angeles Rams teammate Tom Fears liked to spin, and soon his teammates started calling the hard-hitting DB "Night Train." The song itself isn't quite as intimidating as Lane was:

7. Deacon Jones

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One of history's most legendary pass rushers wasn't actually a Deacon, and there's no real back-story with the nickname, either. David Jones simply started calling himself "Deacon" one day because he thought "nobody would ever remember a player named David Jones."

8. Billy "White Shoes" Johnson

The Hall of Fame return man got his nickname in high school. Johnson was whitewashing a fence when some of the paint spilled on his shoes. His friends and family teased him for making the mess, and the name never wore off.

9. Robert "The Chief" Parish

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The man in the middle for the 1980s Celtics owes Ken Kesey some credit for his famous nickname. Teammate Cedric Maxwell dubbed Parish "The Chief" because the looming, quiet center reminded him of the similarly stoic Chief Bromden character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

10. Digger Phelps

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The longtime college hoops coach, analyst, and highlighter enthusiast takes his unusual nickname from time spent around his undertaker father when Phelps was a boy in Beacon, N.Y.

11. Muggsy Bogues

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The diminutive point guard got his famous nickname when he was growing up in Baltimore's housing projects. Going up against Tyrone Bogues' scrappy, aggressive style on the court reminded fellow ballplayers of being in a mugging, so they started calling him Muggsy.

12. Calvin "Megatron" Johnson

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The Detroit Lions' quickly rising star wideout received his nickname from former teammate Roy Williams, who thought Johnson's giant hands were similar to the famous Decepticon leader's mitts.

13. Yogi Berra

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The always quotable catcher received his nickname from a buddy who said that Berra's serene posture before at-bats and while sitting on the bench reminded him of a Hindu yogi they had seen in a movie. Yogi's real name is Lawrence Peter Berra.

14. Jim "Catfish" Hunter

Longtime Kansas City/Oakland Athletics owner Charlie O. Finley loved the potential when he signed a young pitcher named Jim Hunter, but he hated the hurler's bland name. Ever on the lookout for a new promotional opportunity, Finley then informed Jim Hunter that his new name was "Catfish." Finley even created a back-story for the newly fabricated nickname: Hunter was to tell reporters that he had run away from home as a child, and by the time his father found him, he'd already caught five large catfish. You have to admit that "Catfish" is much more memorable than "Jim."

15. Satchel Paige

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It's not clear exactly how Negro Leagues legend Leroy Paige got his famous nickname, but it definitely stems from a childhood job of carrying passengers' bags at the local rail depot for a little extra money. According to Paige, he got the nickname because he could carry so many bags at once. A friend who worked this beat with Paige, however, said he gave the pitcher the nickname after the young Paige was caught trying to swipe a bag he was carrying.

16. Shoeless Joe Jackson

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According to Jackson, he got his famous nickname well before he reached the Major Leagues. He was playing in a game as a teenager when a new pair of cleats began giving him a blister. Rather than suffer through the rest of the game in ill-fitting shoes, Jackson simply went barefoot. Opposing fans heckled him for being shoeless, and the name followed Jackson.

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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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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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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