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The Fans Strike Back: 9 Sports Protests

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In Washington, DC, Redskins fans are mailing "Fan Cards" to team headquarters and local media outlets, renouncing their fandom as a result of the actions of owner Daniel Snyder. In Cleveland, legendary fan "Dawg Pound Mike" is encouraging Browns fans to stay out of their seats for the opening kickoff of the team's Monday night game against the Ravens next week. And in Oakland, it's only a matter of time before Raiders fans think of a creative way to protest the dreadful state of the Silver and Black. Fan protests are alive and well across the NFL, but they're hardly a modern phenomenon. Take a look back at a variety of history's sports protests and then share your own additions in the comments.

1. Who Needs Tickets? The Mayor, For One

For more than a century, ticket scalpers have drawn the ire of fans hoping to attend a game for a price somewhere close to face value. In 1908, scalpers almost put a stop to the World Series. In Touching Base: Professional Baseball and American Culture in the Progressive Era, Steven Riess writes that Chicago Mayor Fred Busse was so angry that he hadn't received tickets to the Fall Classic between the Cubs and Tigers that he threatened to dispatch police officers to prevent fans from entering Chicago's West Side Park because of alleged building code violations. A league-wide World Series policy prevented teams from selling tickets to individual games, so Cubs officials had sold the tickets to scalpers before making them available to the general public.

Busse eventually secured some tickets, but some equally annoyed Cubs fans boycotted the games in Chicago. Given that the Cubs haven't won a World Series since, some of those protesters might regret their decision.

2. The Aints

The Saints joined the NFL in 1967 and went 20 years before finishing with a winning record. The team was the laughingstock of the league, even in New Orleans.

In 1980, the Saints started the year 0-9, prompting fan Robert LeCompte to produce 5,000 paper bags for fans to wear to home games. LeCompte's bags, which provided some anonymity for Saints supporters who were too embarrassed to be associated with such a sorry team, were decorated in black and gold and labeled "Aints." The team's ugly record was listed below the eye holes, which naturally featured painted-on tears.

"It's sort of a humorous protest," LeCompte told reporters in 1980. "If anyone wants to go to the game, but doesn't want his friends to know it, he can go with the bag over his head."

According to the New York Times, Derland Moore, who played nose tackle for the Saints from 1973 to 1985, could've used one of LeCompte's paper bags when he went out in public. "We were the league's doormats," Moore once said. "When I went out and people would ask me if I played for the Saints, I would say no."

3. Giants Fans Decide They've Had Enough

The 1978 New York Giants started the season 5-3 and were within a game of the division lead when things began to fall apart, just as they always seemed to for the G-Men at the time. New York hadn't had a winning season since 1972, so it was no surprise that fans' frustrations bubbled over after the Giants slipped to 5-7 with a loss to division rival Philadelphia. Following that game, an ad appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger prompting disgruntled Giants fans to call a phone number. Those who did were invited to a meeting to decide how Giants fans could best exhibit their frustration with the team's ownership. "We wanted to do something that would truly get the Giants' ownership to take notice," Giants fan Peter Valentine recalled in a 1987 New York Times article. "Burning a ticket? Not enough. Staying away? There are a lot of no-shows late in the season when the weather is bad. What could we do that would really get attention?"

Valentine and his fellow fed-up fans chartered a plane to fly over Giants Stadium during a December game against St. Louis. The plane pulled a banner with the message, "15 Yrs. Of Lousy Football—We've Had Enough." The second part of the message was a reference to Howard Beale's famous line in Network, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore," which was released in 1977. The Giants wouldn't win another championship until the 1986-87 season.

4. Pirates Protest Falls Flat

In 2007, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in the midst of yet another losing season, their 15th in a row. A group of fans who were tired of the team's hapless performance organized a pre-game rally outside of PNC Park to protest the team's ownership. The organizers encouraged fans to attend that night's game against the Washington Nationals and to walk out in protest after the third inning. According to newspaper accounts, only a few thousand fans of the crowd of 26,959 were seen leaving their seats after the third inning and only an estimated 100 actually left the ballpark, some of them to boos from other Pirates fans. "I totally understand the fans' frustration," Pirates owner Bob Nutting said during the game. "I respect the people who are trying to make a statement." An unusual offensive outburst from the Pirates in the form of a six-run second inning may have persuaded some fans to remain in their seats.

5. The Old-Fashioned Protest: A Letter to the Editor

Ken_PhelpsIn August 1989, Yankees fan Nicholas D. DeCurtis wrote a letter to the editor of Newsday. His message? Boycott the Yankees. "Realistically, the only way that baseball can perhaps rid itself of this mean-spirited, greedy, egomaniac is if we fans boycott all future games at Yankee Stadium and send the Boss a message—loud and clear—that we are not returning until he unloads the Bronx Bombers, a once-proud and great franchise." The Boss, of course, was George Steinbrenner, longtime meddlesome owner of the Yankees. Twenty years later, the Steinbrenner family still runs baseball's proudest franchise and the Yankees have added five more World Series titles to their legacy. Now, more often than not, it's the fans of other teams who write the letters protesting New York's free-spending owners.

6. MLBFanStrike.com Strikes Out

Facing the prospects of baseball strike in 2002, less than a decade after baseball's last work stoppage, a group of fans across the county organized a National Fan Boycott on July 11, the day that the league resumed play after the All-Star Break. Web sites, including mlbfanstrike.com, were launched to promote the boycott, which urged fans to refrain from going to games, watching games, and purchasing MLB merchandise. "It's time for the fans to take back the game," Don Wadewitz, one of the organizers, told reporters. "If baseball stops again, a lot of fans aren't coming back this time. We are fed up." The protest was perhaps the most organized in the history of baseball, thanks to the advent of the Internet, but the boycott didn't exactly go as planned. As one reporter wrote in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, ""¦attendance around the majors was affected. It jumped by 2,000 per game. So much for replacing 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' with The Funeral March."

7. Europeans Show Us How It's Done

Some of the most effective sports protests take place across the pond among fans of European soccer teams. Recently, fans of the Halesowen Town FC promised to stay away from home matches until Morrell Maison and Kelly Gentles relinquished control of the team. It's one thing to boycott a dreadful team and quite another to boycott a winner. Halesowen fans continued the boycott despite the club's strong start to the season, helping put the club in a debt of more than 400,000 pounds. "People are still adamant they won't support the club until Maison is gone," said Gary Willets, one of the leaders of the boycott. "It's a shame because we're doing well and it would be nice to watch the team. But everyone is looking at the big picture right now." The boycott was lifted in October after two groups made bids to purchase the club.

8. Eagles Fans Are Good at Booing, Not Boycotting

Sometimes a team has to be torn down before it can be good again. That's what Philadelphia football fan Frank Sheppard thought of the hometown Eagles in 1968. "The really loyal fans of the Eagles do hope for a bad day," said Sheppard, who helped organize a fan boycott for a home game against New Orleans after the Eagles started the season 1-11. Sheppard and other fans had grown so frustrated with team owner Jerry Wolman and coach-general manager Joe Kuharich that they took out ads in the local newspapers calling for their dismissal. "To hope for a loss is the best thing an Eagles' fan could do," Sheppard said before the game against the Saints. The boycott was a flop—57, 128 fans showed up—and the Eagles won, taking them out of the running to finish with the league's worst record and the right to the No. 1 draft pick, which Buffalo would use to select O.J. Simpson.

9. Mercury Rising in Support of Brandy Reed

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Without fail, when All-Star teams are announced, fans, coaches, and sportswriters will clamor that someone was snubbed. In the case of the 2000 WNBA season, that someone was Phoenix Mercury center Brandy Reed. Mercury fans threatened to boycott the All-Star Game, which was being held in Phoenix, while Phoenix head coach Cheryl Miller grabbed a microphone following the final game before the All-Star break to encourage fans to go to the All-Star Game wearing black shirts in protest. WNBA president Val Ackerman stepped in and added Reed, who was sixth in the league in scoring, to the West's roster. Crisis averted. If only it worked that way in baseball.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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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Opening Ceremony
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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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