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The Stupidest Questions in Super Bowl History

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New Orleans, January 1981. My first Super Bowl.

I'm trying to ask questions of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Charlie Smith at the first media availability.

He'd recently broken his jaw, the wires in his mouth standing sentry against solid nourishment and reducing his speech to what under different circumstances would pass as beginner's ventriloquism.

(Confession: Bourbon Street overmatched me on my first night in town. My condition was probably worse than Smith's. To be fair all these years later, he may have spoken perfectly understandable King's English, but to my ears he sounded like a man speaking underwater.)

Smith was an important part of the Eagles team I covered for the Philadelphia Daily News. He'd been injured in the final regular season game and had missed the postseason to that point.

Would he practice? Could he play? How would he keep up his strength?

He tried his best to answer. But in a crowd three deep with the noise of my first Super Bowl media experience exploding around us, I looked at my notebook after 30 minutes. I had written down exactly one sentence.

"I can't eat meat."

That was Super Bowl XV, nearly 30 years ago. Since then, the annual Super Bowl tradition known as Media Day—it happens again today in Miami—has come to represent the NFL at its silliest and smartest.

Proof There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

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It's the place where a Japanese reporter once asked of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, "Tell me, why do they call you Boomer?" (Well, they don't actually. That would be Boomer Esiason, the Cincinnati quarterback.)

It's where someone asked Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "What's your relationship with the football?" To which Salave'a said, "I'd say it's strictly platonic."

Asked how he got psyched to play in big games, Buffalo's great running back Thurman Thomas sniffed, "I read the newspapers and look at all the stupid questions you all ask."

Not sure if that was the Super Bowl where Thomas lost two fumbles in a 30-13 loss or the one where he couldn't find his helmet and missed the first few plays in a 37-24 loss.

Media Day is where Downtown Julie Brown, formerly of MTV, asked Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, "What are you going to wear in the game Sunday?"

Where Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner was asked, "Do you believe in voodoo and can I have a lock of your hair?"

Where Denver running back Detron Smith was asked, "What size panties do you think you'd wear?"

Where a St. Louis player found himself pondering the grammatical conundrum contained within the question, "Is Ram a noun or a verb?"

An urban legend grew that Washington quarterback Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, was asked, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"

(Not true. ESPN.com cleared that up in a recent story. The reporter knew Williams. He also knew Williams was tired of hearing about race. So the question was more along the lines of, "Doug, obviously you've been a black quarterback all along. When did it suddenly become important?")

Even so, right about now my guess is you see Thurman Thomas' point.

But here's the beauty of what the National Football League is all about. Many of the questions that make annual Dumbest Super Bowl Questions lists are staged by non-sports writers. They are ridiculous, purposely over-the-top and all part of a circus the league encourages to fill as many rings as possible on the day that signals the revving of the Super Bowl publicity machine.

So you get Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXXII being asked, "Are you going to listen to Stevie Wonder perform at halftime?"

(Sure thing. What else would he be doing at halftime except shushing the coaches so he could hear "Don't You Worry About a Thing"?)

The NFL gets it as no other sports league gets it. For instance, it subjects its players to three days of madness at the Super Bowl and fines them if they don't show up.

One year, a 10-year-old ''reporter" identifying himself as Sparky Mortimer walked around asking questions of players and coaches on behalf of David Letterman. Who's going to turn down a 10-year-old? Not even Thurman Thomas.

A Day in the Life of a Serious Sports Writer

The free-for-all of Media Day is the worst day in a serious sports writer's year, but if you're there for the spectacle there's nothing quite like it.

Why is it the worst day annually for sports writers covering the NFL? Because it has so little to do with football and it offers such insurmountable roadblocks to coherent conversation.

To give this proper context, I should say that any circle of reporters at the Super Bowl is comprised of any number of agendas. One might be working on the quarterback's life story. Another might be looking for a quote on how the quarterback's team will deal with the opposing pass rush. Another might be asking something that gets him on TV.

So it usually goes like this:

Reporter No. 1: "You say you were poor growing up?"
QB: "Yes, all I got for Christmas one year was an orange."
Reporter No. 2: "Should we expect to see you throw downfield early?"
QB: "I'm not going to give away the game plan."
Reporter No. 1: "What kind of orange? Did you eat it or decorate it?"
QB: "What?"
Reporter No. 2: "What do you see when you look at their secondary?"

An ESPN.com story from this time last year recounted one tedious conversation that occurred 10 years ago between a reporter and the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who had just told the story of a harrowing experience a month earlier when his car flipped and he thought he might die.

"I called on the name of Jesus," Bruce said. "That's the name that I know saves me. And when I did that, I knew everything would be fine."

Said a reporter (for some reason), "Did you say 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?' Or just 'Jesus?'"

Bruce: "It was one Jesus," he said. "That's all it takes."

Good to get that cleared up.

plunkett-SII wasn't there for that tortured exchange. But I was in the group of reporters at Super Bowl XV when Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett was asked a question that makes every Super Bowl list. And this one wasn't staged by a TV or radio personality. As sports writers we have to own this one.

Plunkett had just answered a question about his parents. He spoke in low, respectful tones about growing up in a special needs household, that his mother was blind and that his father, also blind, had passed away.

Five more topics came and went after Plunkett mentioned his parents. A reporter from the Philadelphia press corps, a guy I once worked with at another paper, jumped in. He was a columnist. He wasn't there to write about the blitz. Plunkett's family situation was far more intriguing to him.

He tried two or three times to ask a follow-up. But he kept losing the floor to reporters who timed their questions better or who were close enough to make eye contact with Plunkett, or who simply spoke up louder.

Finally, he forced his way back into the interview.

"Jimmy, Jimmy, I want to make sure I have this right. Was it dead mother, blind father or blind mother, dead father?"

You can find that kind of sensitivity in Don Rickles' stand-up, but not many other places.

The Original Sports Hostage Situation

SB-44Long ago, the NFL saw the crossover marketing potential in welcoming not just newspapers with NFL teams in their cities. But E!, Letterman, Leno, Comedy Central, MTV, every big national radio show.

In the media center, Radio Row goes on for a quarter mile. It's a city unto itself, a media "Babble-on." It wasn't always so. The Super Bowl became a media event after "Broadway" Joe Namath led the Jets to a milestone upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. It became a cultural linchpin because the NFL has been pure genius in the staging of the week leading up to the game. [Image courtesy of Flickr user snblogs.]

It sets aside Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for player interviews. After that, the players are off limits.

Try coming into town Friday for a Sunday game as a member of the media, and you've not only missed the players but maybe even a room at the NFL headquarters hotel (they demand a four-night minimum).

Come in time for the player interviews and you spend almost a week previewing one game. A friend once called it "the original sports hostage situation." The NFL would have it no other way.

Sometimes the players and the game even prove worthy of all the attention.

When Dallas linebacker Hollywood Henderson famously said Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the "c" and the "a," Bradshaw responded by throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Cowboys.

If the drumroll gets louder with players working off nervous energy by talking trash, all the better for the league. But it's not necessary.

The marvel of what the NFL has fashioned over the past XLIV years is that the game is almost beside the point.

Norman Vincent Peale once said, "If Jesus were alive today, he'd be at the Super Bowl."

In what capacity, Peale didn't say.

But it's an intriguing thought, if only because it could explain the question asked of New England quarterback Tom Brady at a Super Bowl not long ago.

"Tom," came a voice in the crowd, "what is your purpose in life?"

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, and read all his mental_floss articles 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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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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10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
May 29, 2017
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Library of Congress

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.

WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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BIG QUESTIONS
BIG QUESTIONS
WEATHER WATCH
BE THE CHANGE
JOB SECRETS
QUIZZES
WORLD WAR 1
SMART SHOPPING
STONES, BONES, & WRECKS
#TBT
THE PRESIDENTS
WORDS
RETROBITUARIES