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7-Pound Purple Dumbbells and 14 More Gimmicky Heisman Campaigns

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Last month, the Northwestern athletic department garnered national attention when it shipped two 7-pound purple dumbbells to about 80 college football writers across the country. A subtle hint that the recipients should spend a little more time in the gym? No, just part of the school’s preseason Heisman Trophy campaign for quarterback Dan Persa, who wears No. 7 and was named the Wildcats’ strongest player. Here’s a short history of the Heisman campaigning tradition and some of the more interesting gimmicks through the years.

1. Vote Terry Baker

The Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, but schools didn’t do much campaigning for players until nearly 30 years later. In 1962, Oregon State publicist John Eggers helped Beavers quarterback Terry Baker become the first player west of the Mississippi to win college football’s most prestigious award by mailing updated stats and notes about Baker to voters every week. In 2010, Eggers was elected into the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Hall of Fame.

2. Meet Roger Staubach

Trumpeting your star player’s exploits on a national level would soon become the norm for college athletic departments.


In the summer of 1963, Navy sports information director L. Budd Thalman mailed 1,000, four-page pamphlets titled “Meet Roger Staubach” to media members near and far. Thalman also helped land the Navy quarterback on the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time. Staubach was scheduled to appear on the cover of the November issue of Life, but he was bumped after the assassination of President Kennedy.


Staubach won the Heisman by a landslide, but Thalman, like Eggers one year before, refused to take any of the credit. “Roger would have won if Elmer Fudd was his publicity man,” Thalman told ESPN’s Darren Rovell in 2000.

3. Joey Heisman

In 2001, University of Oregon boosters spent $250,000 to erect a 10-story billboard of Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington across from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Harrington led Oregon to an 11-1 season and a victory in the Fiesta Bowl, but he finished fourth in the Heisman voting. In 2003, while playing in the NFL, Harrington sold pieces of the 80-foot by 100-foot billboard to help fund scholarships for Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

4. A Little Something for Jason Gesser

Not to be outdone by its neighbor and conference foe to the southwest, Washington State promoted quarterback Jason Gesser for the Heisman in 2002 with a 25-foot by 15-foot vinyl poster on a 10-story grain elevator in tiny Dusty, Washington, which is on the road to Pullman from Seattle. “We did it for fun, for a spoof,” Washington State head coach Mike Price said. “Jason is a bit embarrassed by it.” The poster was about 100 times cheaper than Harrington’s billboard.

5. Bobble Byron Leftwich

The Marshall sports information department distributed approximately 1,000 Byron Leftwich bobblehead dolls to Heisman voters across the country to promote the Thundering Herd’s quarterback in 2002. “I think it’s a good idea,” Leftwich said. “My head’s already too big in real life. People will see the doll and think my head’s not so big.” Big head or not, Leftwich wasn’t a finalist for the award.

6. Air Ware

With Houston banned from appearing on television in 1989 as part of the NCAA sanctions levied against the school, the Cougars’ sports information department needed a creative way to promote quarterback Andre “Air” Ware for the Heisman. The result was a weekly flier designed to look like an airline timetable, which included updated stats and notes about the prolific passer. Ware won the award and would go on to become the seventh pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. By that point, his best football days were behind him.

7. Theismann as in Heisman


After Joe Theismann arrived at Notre Dame in 1967, sports information director Roger Valdiserri convinced him to change the pronunciation of his name from Thees-man to Thighs-man. You know, like in Heisman. Theismann enjoyed a successful career in South Bend, but finished runner-up to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett in the Heisman voting in 1970.


Six years later, Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett changed the pronunciation of his name (from DOR-set to Dor-SET) around the time that he was awarded the Heisman. “Lots of guys change their names,” Dorsett told a reporter in 1977. “Muhammad Ali. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I wanted to see the type of feedback I’d get.”

8. Fit to Be Tied

In 1990, BYU mailed cardboard ties that opened to reveal stats to Heisman voters as part of the campaign for quarterback Ty Detmer. The junior threw for 5,188 yards and 41 touchdowns in 12 regular season games and won the Heisman. Detmer would finish third in the voting in 1991.

9. Oats for Votes

Touting a center for the Heisman Trophy is a tough sell, but that’s exactly what BYU did in 1981 when it sprinkled rolled oats in envelopes along with notes about Bart Oates that it mailed to voters. Oates didn’t come close to winning the award, but he went on to a successful NFL career that included five Pro Bowls and later starred as himself in a 2005 episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

10. Super “Boo Boo”

After Paul Palmer didn’t receive a single Heisman vote despite averaging 193.7 yards rushing per game in 1985, Temple’s sports information office pulled out all the stops to promote its start running back. Nicknamed by his grandmother after the sidekick in the Yogi Bear comic strip, Palmer was featured in a 16-page comic book that was mailed to more than 1,000 sportswriters. Temple also sent photos of Palmer posing with golfing legend Arnold Palmer with the tagline “Pennsylvania has two Palmers” and Paul Palmer-emblazoned pens with sample Heisman ballots. Palmer finished runner-up for the Heisman that year to Vinny Testaverde.

11. Raking in the Votes

In 1997, Rod Commons, who worked under John Eggers at Oregon State, mailed envelopes with a single leaf inside to Heisman voters to promote Cougars quarterback Ryan Leaf. The Pac-10’s Offensive Player of the Year in 1997, Leaf led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, but finished third in the Heisman voting behind Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning.

12. See Ray Run

In addition to launching SeeRayRun.com, Rutgers mailed binoculars to Heisman voters so they could keep an eye on the Scarlet Knights’ diminutive running back in 2007. He wasn’t a finalist for the award, but he has enjoyed a solid NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens.

13. Stock in Williams

Memphis sports information director Jennifer Rodrigues made headlines with her campaign for running back DeAngelo Williams in 2005. Memphis mailed about 2,500 die-cast model stock cars featuring Williams’ No. 20 to media members and sold another 1,500 on the school website. Williams finished seventh in the Heisman voting that year and Memphis made $20,000 from the sale of the cars, which it put toward its general scholarship fund.

14. View-Master


In 2008, the University of Missouri promoted quarterback Chase Daniel’s Heisman candidacy by issuing old-school View-master toys with slides featuring various images of Daniel. "I didn't want to do just a mouse pad or a coffee mug, other standard items or more basic items. I didn't want to do anything that people could just toss aside," Missouri sports information director Chad Moller told reporters. "We wanted to create a little splash and do it in a classy manner."

Bonus: Tom Garlick

OK, so it wasn’t for the Heisman, but Fordham deserves some credit for its three-week campaign to get wide receiver Tom Garlick some consideration for Division I-AA All-America honors in 1992. The school’s sports information office mailed fliers to sportswriters across the country. The top of the flier read “This Garlic Stinks” and included a piece of garlic. The middle section of the flier read “This One Doesn’t” and included Garlick’s stats. Garlick was an honorable mention All-America that season.

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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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