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11 Prominent Authors Who Excelled in Sports

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Some of the most important literary figures of the last century had previously made a name for themselves in athletics. Here are the stories of a halfback who became a beatnik, an Olympic-hopeful wrestler who became leader of the Merry Pranksters, and nine other athletically gifted writers.

1. Ken Kesey

Reading Tom Wolfe's anatomical account of Kesey in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, with his "thick wrists and big forearms," "big neck with a pair of stemocleido-mastoid muscles," whose "jaw and chin are massive," it's little surprise he was a standout football player and wrestler as an Oregonian schoolboy. Kesey's prowess on the mat landed him at The University of Oregon where, competing in the 174 lb. division, he earned the Fred Lowe Scholarship, awarded annually to the Northwest's most outstanding wrestler.

A shoulder injury sustained during preliminary qualifying for the United States Olympic team effectively ended his wrestling days while simultaneously kick-starting his literary career: The same day Kesey was notified by the military that the injury classified as 4F, thus disqualifying him for service in Vietnam, he was also granted the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which allowed him to enter Stanford's writing program.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons user MDCarchives

2. David Foster Wallace

Like Kesey, Wallace's imposing stature in the literary field was equal parts metaphorical and literal. Author David Lipsky observed the late writer walking with "...an ex-athlete's saunter – a roll from the heels, as if any physical thing was a pleasure."


A football enthusiast in his youth, Wallace spent his post-pubescence pursuing and maintaining a level of, as he put it, "...near great junior tennis player." As a 14-year-old, he enjoyed a U.S. Tennis Association ranking of 17th in the Midwest, 4th in his home state of Illinois, and, by his own estimation, "around one hundredth in the nation." Even in his athletic twilight, he continued to possess unwavering confidence in his abilities, confessing, "deep down inside, I still consider myself an extremely good tennis player, very hard to beat."


The subject of tennis—its beauty, intricacies, participants, etc.—permeates the late post-modernist's bibliography, so it's of little surprise when Wallace, in an Esquire profile of tennis pro Michael Joyce, submits "...that tennis is the most beautiful sport there is and also the most demanding." A man known for footnotes, his life in tennis was anything but.

Photo by Flickr user claude le monde (Claudia Sherman)

3. Jack Kerouac

The protagonist of Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Town and The City, enjoys success as a high school football star before accepting an athletic scholarship. As is the case with the majority of the Beat writer's works, it's largely autobiographical.


The Lowell, MA, native ran track and played in the outfield for his hometown school, but it was in the backfield for Lowell's football squad where he enjoyed the most success. Several top universities, including Boston College and Notre Dame, expressed interest in his services before he accepted a scholarship offer from Columbia University. However, constant clashes with his head coach and a major tibia injury in the season's second game ended his football career.

A recent piece on Kerouac's childhood, entitled "Another Side of Kerouac: The Dharma Bum as Sports Nut," reveals the author's childhood passion for fantasy sports decades before the concept entered into the collective consciousness of American sports fans: "He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players... He collected their stats, analyzed their performances..."

Photograph by Tom Palumbo, via his Flickr stream

4. Samuel Beckett


Beckett's obituary in the New York Times features the sub-header, "A Star in Study and Sports," a fitting summation of the cricketer/rugby player/light-heavyweight boxer turned novelist/playwright/theater director.


Beckett's affection for cricket remained long after his playing days ended, and it's as a cricketer that he enjoys his most noteworthy distinctions. As a student at Dublin University, the lefty bowler/batter twice participated in 'first-class' cricket matches ('first-class' referring to the highest level of domestic cricket as sanctioned by the game's governing body). Upon receiving the 1969 Nobel Prize for literature, Beckett earned the double-distinction of "only Nobel laureate to have played first-class cricket" and "only laureate to have an entry in Wisden Cricketeers' Almanack," which is considered the foremost authority on the game.

5. Jim Carroll

By the age of 13, Jim Carroll was cementing his legend on the basketball courts of New York City's Lower East Side and writing, in the words of Jack Kerouac, "better prose than 89 percent of the novelists working today."


Carroll's family moved to the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, and his raw, prodigious talents on the court and in the classroom earned him a half-academic, half-athletic scholarship to Manhattan's Trinity School, one of the nation's elite prep schools. A three-time All-City performer while at Trinity, he was selected to play in the National High School All-Star Game in 1966.


But schoolboy exploits only tell half the story. As is the case with all too many NYC hoop legends of the era, his playground exploits are left to the subjective memory of oral historians who recall Carroll's rivalry with fellow Inwood resident Lew Alcindor, among other greats.

While his addiction to heroin—famously chronicled in The Basketball Diaries—adversely affected his chances of playing college ball (he once recalled nodding off during dinner with a representative from Notre Dame), Carroll maintained that it was literature, not dope, that killed his basketball game.

Photograph by Eric Thompson, via the Jim Carroll fan site

6. Tom Wolfe

Prior to his career as New Journalist and writer, Tom Wolfe's foremost aspiration was to play professional baseball. After starring on the mound at Richmond's St. Christopher's School, Wolfe found himself on the pitching staff at Washington and Lee University. Possessing, in his own words, "a great screwball," he would go on to play a couple of seasons of semi-professional baseball until 1952, when he was granted a tryout for the New York Giants. Having been cut by the Giants after only 3 days, which he attributes to a lack of a fastball, the writer was prompted to forgo his baseball dreams and pursue a PhD in American Studies at Yale.

Upon reflection of his failed diamond pursuits, Wolfe remarked, "The only thing that saved me from a very poor career as a professional baseball player is the fact that I wasn't good enough."

Photo is from the White House Salute to American Authors in 2004

Honorable Mentions

7. Malcolm Lowry
Author of Under the Volcano, he won the junior golf championship at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club at age 15.

8. John Fowles
A member of The Times' "50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945" list, Fowles attended the Bedford School and was a standout on the rugby, fives, and cricket teams.

9. Roald Dahl
Acclaimed author of several of the greatest modern children's books, as well as screenplays for You Only Live Once and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 6'6" Dahl played football, boxed in the heavyweight division, and captained the fives and squash teams at Repton, a famed public school.

10. Stephen Crane
Author of The Red Badge of Courage, he played baseball as a catcher at three different colleges: Claverack, Lafayette, and Syracuse.

11. James Dickey
Former U.S. Poet Laureate and author of Deliverance, he played tailback at Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina.

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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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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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