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10 Interesting Pieces of Sports Headgear

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The NFL playoffs continue this weekend with Kurt Warner leading the high-scoring Arizona Cardinals into New Orleans for a showdown with the Saints. There is speculation that a loss could mark the final game of Warner's career, not for lack of ability (he threw for five touchdowns last week against the Packers), but because of his concern about sustaining another concussion like the one that sidelined him earlier this season.

While the NFL introduced new rules this season requiring players who exhibit any significant symptoms of a concussion to be removed from a game or practice, players have long taken protecting their noggins into their own hands. From oversized helmets and Velcro-affixed padding to facemasks and ball-repelling throat protectors, here are 10 interesting ways that athletes through the years have protected their most valuable assets "“ their heads.

1. Mark Kelso's Pro Cap

Longtime Buffalo Bills trainer Eddie Abramoski had watched safety Mark Kelso get knocked silly one too many times, so he took action. In 1989, Abramoski approached Kelso with a Pro Cap, a half-inch of rubberized padding that fit over a standard helmet and was attached with Velcro. The device was designed by Bert Strauss of Protective Sports Equipment in Erie, Pa., where Abramoski was once a high school football standout. Teammates dubbed Kelso "The Great Gazoo," but the teasing was a small price to pay for the protection the Pro Cap offered. The creators of the device claimed that the Pro Cap reduced the chances of a recurring head injury from 65 percent to 3 percent. "The biggest obstacle is the aesthetics," said Kelso, who credited the Pro Cap with prolonging his career. "I think guys just don't want to wear it because it looks so different." At least two other NFL players, Indianapolis Colts lineman Randy Dixon and San Francisco 49ers lineman Steve Wallace, also wore the Pro Cap. "Everyone laughs at me," said Wallace, who started wearing one after suffering his fifth concussion. "But what's more important, your ego or being able to play with your kids with a clear head after your career is over? I'll never play again without it."

2. David Wright's Jumbo Helmet

wright-helmetThree weeks after being beaned in the head by a Matt Cain fastball last season, New York Mets third baseman Wright returned to the lineup sporting the Rawlings S100, an oversized helmet that can withstand the impact of a 100 mph fastball. Wright resembled a life-size bobblehead doll and was the object of ridicule both within and outside the Mets' clubhouse before ditching the helmet after two games. "It's just not comfortable," he told reporters. In his first game with his regular helmet since coming off the disabled list, Wright had three hits. Rawlings delivered a trial shipment of the S100s to every major league team last September, but players, citing the helmets' bulky feel and goofy look, have been hesitant to make the switch. Angels outfielder Torii Hunter refers to them as "Gazoo helmets," a reference to the Flintstones character, while Marlins catcher John Baker is waiting for Rawlings or another company to improve on the S100's design. "If we could put a man on the moon 40 years ago, we can put a transmitter on Mars and I can watch a movie on my little iPod, we could probably make a thinner helmet that can protect up to a 100-mph fastball," Baker told the Palm Beach Post.

3. Ryan Sadowski's Plastic Cap Insert

When veteran Randy Johnson went on the disabled list with an elbow injury last season, it opened the door for San Francisco Giants rookie Ryan Sadowski to make his major league debut after a remarkable trip through the minor leagues. In 2003, while pitching for the Giants' short-season minor league team, Sadowski began experiencing headaches. He didn't think much of them at first, but after becoming extremely sick a few months later, he had an MRI and was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma. Sadowski had emergency surgery and doctors told him that he would probably never throw again. Instead, he resumed pitching in 2004. The Giants wanted Sadowski to wear a skullcap to protect his noggin when he returned, but the right-hander had a more creative solution. Sadowski starched one of his caps and provided it to a plastic manufacturer, which produced a mold and a custom plastic insert for Sadowski to place inside his regular caps., "It's kind of shaped like a salad bowl," he told the San Jose Mercury News last year. Sadowski won his first two starts before struggling and being sent back down to the minors.

4. Jacques Plante's Goalie Mask

jacquesIn 1959, Montreal Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante was hit in the face by a shot in the first period of a game at Madison Square Garden. The game was delayed 20 minutes while Plante received seven stitches to close the wound. He returned to the game wearing a fiberglass mask, which he had used in practice but had never worn in a game. The decision sparked controversy and criticism from some of hockey's traditionalists. Muzz Patrick, the Rangers' general manager, told the New York Times, "The use of a mask takes something from the fans. They want to see the man, particularly the female fans." A few years before Plante started wearing his mask, Rangers goalie Gump Worsley had considered the idea. Worsley purchased a mask, but his coach, Phil Watson, wouldn't let him wear it. "Who wants a good-looking goalie?" Watson said. By 1974, perhaps to the dismay of the league's female fans, all goalies were wearing masks.

5. Steve Yeager's Throat Protector

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Steve Yeager is remembered for a number of things, and his ability to hit a baseball is not one of them. Yeager's cousin, Chuck, was widely considered the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Steve Yeager, who was a .228 hitter in 15 major league seasons, posed nude for Playgirl in 1982. He appeared in Major League, Major League II, and Major League: Back to the Minors. He won the 1981 World Series MVP award. Oh, and he almost died in the on-deck circle. In 1976, shards from Bill Russell's broken bat tore a hole a half-inch deep in Yeager's neck, piercing his esophagus. Yeager underwent emergency surgery and made a full recovery. Shortly after the incident, Dodgers trainer Bill Buhler, who was known as Dr. Fix-It throughout his 44 years in baseball, invented and patented a throat protector that hung from the catcher's mask. While it wouldn't protect him in the on-deck circle, Yeager began wearing the throat protector behind the plate and it soon became a staple piece of equipment for both catchers and umpires.

6. Charlie O'Brien's Hockey-Style Cather's Mask

hockey-maskThirteen years after Yeager retired and more than 100 years since Harvard's Jim Tyng introduced the catcher's mask to baseball, journeyman catcher Charlie O'Brien, who was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays at the time, began working with Van Velden Mask Inc. to design a hockey-style catcher's mask that would provide greater protection against foul-tipped balls. Major League Baseball approved the masks, but prohibited the use of personalized logos and designs like the ones that had become popular among NHL goalies. When O'Brien debuted the mask in Toronto, the Jumbotron at SkyDome displayed images from Friday the 13th, The Mask, and Silence of the Lambs. Hockey-style catcher masks remain popular today.

7. John Olerud's Helmet

helmet-JOAfter his junior season at Washington State, John Olerud underwent a six-hour surgery to remove an aneurysm at the base of his brain. Cougars head coach Bobo Brayton suggested that Olerud, who was named college player of the year as a sophomore, wear a helmet in the field during his senior season. Brayton had worn a helmet while coaching after he was drilled in the head by a line drive while throwing batting practice in 1959. "You know when (NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk) got his neck cut? One of the things he said in an interview is that the little things that used to bother him don't bother him any more," Olerud told the Spokesman-Review in 1989. "Well, the little things that used to get on my nerves just don't any more." Olerud, a lifetime .295 hitter, wore a flapless helmet in the field throughout his 17-year career.

8. Dave Parker's Hockey and Football Masks

parker-helmetIn 1978, Pittsburgh Pirates great Dave Parker fractured his jaw and cheekbone in a home plate collision with Mets catcher John Stearns. Parker missed 11 games before returning to the lineup with some unique headgear to protect his swollen face. Parker wore a hockey goalie's mask painted black and yellow during batting practice and as a pinch-hitter in his first game back. While the hockey mask was intimidating, it limited Parker's ability to see pitches, so he turned to Pittsburgh Steelers equipment manager Tony Parisi to help design him a better form of protection. Parisi came up with several solutions, including a baseball helmet with a football-style two-bar faceguard. Paul Lukas, ESPN contributor and founder of the Uni Watch blog, captured the fascinating history of Parker's various masks in an article last year. Parker stopped wearing facial protection in 1979. Nearly 30 years earlier, the Pirates, under the instruction of general manager Branch Rickey, were the first team to wear helmets.

9. Gerry Cheevers' Stitch Mask

stitch-maskAfter being hit in the mask by a puck during practice in 1968, Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Gerry Cheevers asked team trainer John Forristall to draw stitch marks on his mask where he had been hit. The comical idea continued that season and Cheevers' white mask was soon full of stitch marks. Cheevers began each season with a fresh canvas for Forristall's stitches and his unique design helped launch the tradition of decorated goalie masks that continues today. "Kids used to write me and say, "˜How do I get a mask like that?'" Cheevers recalled in a 2007 interview. "I'd say, "˜Send me $100 and I'll send you a Magic Marker."

10. Richard Hamilton's Facemask

ripDetroit Pistons guard Richard Hamilton began wearing a clear plastic facemask in March 2004 after having his nose broken twice during the season. While Hamilton hated the mask at first, he gradually became more comfortable with it and led the Pistons in playoff scoring en route to an NBA title. Hamilton had no intentions of wearing the mask in 2005, but resumed wearing it early in the season and has sported it ever since. Hamilton's mask was designed by orthotist Jerry McHale, who created a clear facemask for former Pistons "Bad Boy" Bill Laimbeer in 1990 after he suffered an orbital fracture, and a facemask for Kobe Bryant while the Lakers guard was in high school.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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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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Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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