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14 Super Bowl Sideshows and Subplots

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At Super Bowl XV in New Orleans -- my first Super Bowl -- wildman defensive lineman John Matuszak of the Oakland Raiders nominated himself as a most unlikely Bourbon Street chaperone.


"I'm going to see that there's no funny business," The Tooz said. "I've had enough parties for 20 people's lifetimes. I'll keep our young fellows out of trouble."


A day later, Matuszak didn't just break curfew. He shattered it, rolling in at 3 a.m.


Dick Vermeil, the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Oakland's opponent, said he would've sent Matuszak home immediately if The Tooz played for him.


"Wednesday night is my normal night to go out, so I went out, curfew or no curfew," Matuszak said. "I'll pay my fine. I walked out the front door. I had nothing to hide.

"Some guy said he heard the club had hired deputies to stand guard and try to stop me. If I want to go out, I go out. I don't care what kind of deputies they have. Vermeil can't understand that. Hey, use your head, buddy. I couldn't play for him in a million years, and I wouldn't want to."

Vermeil never saw the big picture as a coach. Once, during a workout at the Eagles' practice field in Philadelphia, Vermeil got frustrated with construction workers building a stage for a Rolling Stones concert. Hammers. Saws. The noise was a distraction. As a joke, we asked him if he were a fan of the Rolling Stones -- knowing full well Vermeil had complete tunnel vision about football.

"No," he said, "but my kids read their magazine."

Vermeil put his team through two practices the Tuesday of the Super Bowl. He enforced curfew nightly. He accounted for his players' every waking minute. When they lined up for the Super Bowl introductions, they looked tight. They played tighter.

Meanwhile, the Raiders ran up $15,000 in fines for breaking team rules that week. In the locker room before the game, some of them played cards. During the game, others ate peanuts on the sideline. They won easily, 27-10.

Raiders' offensive lineman Gene Upshaw, who would later lead the NFL player's association, told Sports Illustrated, "If (head coach) Tom Flores sent home every guy on his football team who screwed up, he'd be the only guy on the sideline."

No term is more overused during Super Bowl week than "distractions." Coaches preach sermons against them.

"You always have one knucklehead in every group, but you hope that the guys are trusting what you're telling them [about the week]," former Giants coach Jim Fassel told ESPN.com. "That's all you can do in the end. You just have to hope they're listening."

The media gets completely distracted asking about distractions. What we've learned over the years, and what we may find out again in Super Bowl XLVI between New England and the New York Giants is not all distractions are created equal.

14 Super Bowl Sideshows and Subplots

1. At Super Bowl XXXIII, Atlanta defensive back Eugene Robinson was picked up for soliciting oral sex from an undercover female cop the night before the Super Bowl.

It's hard to say what was worse. That Dan Reeves played him anyway. That he gave up a 80-yard TD pass in a lopsided loss to John Elway's Denver Broncos.

Or that a day earlier he'd received the Bart Starr Award for "outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community."

2. Chiefs' quarterback Len Dawson was linked to a federal gambling investigation the week of Super Bowl IV after a man named Donald Dawson was arrested with $400,000 on him and Len Dawson's phone number on a slip of paper. Turned out the Dawsons were not related and the quarterback was never charged.


But if you had, say, laid money on Dawson not being distracted, you would've won as easily as the Chiefs did over Minnesota. Dawson was the MVP in a 23-7 thrashing of the heavily favored Vikings .


3. At Super Bowl III when Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a win over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts, it made big news. The supremely confident Namath wasn't just putting on a show for the media. He also didn't shy away from trash talking his opponents in person.


Namath, decked out in a fur coat, spotted Baltimore kicker Lou Michaels in a South Florida restaurant. Namath told him, "We’re gonna kick the --- out of you, and I’m gonna do it," Michaels recalled.

The Jets won, 16-7.

4. At Super Bowl XX, Bears coach Mike Ditka was so worried about Jim McMahon that he threatened to fine McMahon's roommate, Kurt Becker, if the quarterback caused any problems out on the town.

Nice try. A New Orleans media outlet reported that McMahon, in an interview with a Chicago radio station, had said of the people of New Orleans, "The women are sluts and the men are idiots." McMahon never said it. (At least not in a radio interview.)

During the same week, McMahon mooned a helicopter circling over the Bears' practice field.

The Bears, who also brought attention to themselves by making a Super Bowl Shuffle video, blew out New England, 46-10.

5. Green Bay backup Max McGee figured he wouldn't play much behind receivers Boyd Dowler and Carroll Dale. After all, he only caught four passes all year.

So he got drunk the night before Super Bowl I, telling Dowler, "I hope you don't get hurt. I'm not in very good shape." After an injury to Dowler on the second series, McGee borrowed a helmet and rushed into the game. He caught 7 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-10 win over Kansas City.

6. In the same Green Bay-Kansas City Super Bowl, the Chiefs' intimidator, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson predicted mayhem.

"Two hammers to Dowler, one to Dale should be enough," he said.

Williamson was carried off on a stretcher after trying to tackle Green Bay's Donnie Anderson.

7. A year ago, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took his linemen out to dinner Tuesday night in Dallas. Internet footage of Roethlisberger singing "Piano Man" at a -- you guessed it -- piano bar appeared on TMZ.

It somehow became a Super Bowl week story, I guess because Roethlisberger started the season under suspension after the league looked into allegations he sexually assaulted a woman at a bar in Georgia.

See the connection? No.

Not many people did.

"I'm not concerned one iota," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said of Roethlisberger's choice of entertainment. "It's normal for guys to eat dinner, believe it or not. During the course of the season, guys go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Believe it or not, guys live lives."

8. Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson tried to get Steelers' quarterback Terry Bradshaw worked up in Super Bowl XIII by saying, "Bradshaw is so dumb he couldn't spell 'cat' if you spotted him the 'C' and the 'A'."


"I may be dumb,'' Bradshaw said. "But I'm not stupid.


Bradshaw threw four TD passes and 318 yards in a 35-31 win. In addressing the incident later, he shrugged and said, "It's football, not rocket science."


9. Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson on Super Bowl Saturday told his teammates he was going back to his room to get his playbook. A Cincinnati coach found him in the bathroom of his hotel room, wasted on cocaine.


He was left off the active roster for Super Bowl XXIII. In a tight game where he might've made the difference, the Bengals lost to San Francisco, 20-16.

10. Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley should've recognized an omen when he saw it at Super Bowl XXVII. He apparently exchanged words with Magic Johnson at a nightclub in L.A. and got the worst of it from Johnson's bodyguard. Talley denied the exchange turned physical. Whatever happened couldn't come close to matching the hurt the Cowboys put on the Bills in a 52-17 romp.

11. The biggest collector's item in Super Bowl history should be a recording of Bill Parcells telling his Patriots to avoid distractions in Super Bowl XXXI.

Why? Six days before the game, a newspaper story linked Parcells with the Jets head coaching job. Parcells reportedly spent part of Super Bowl week planning his exit and did not fly back with the team after its 35-21 loss to the Packers.

12. In the same Super Bowl, Brett Favre turned heads when spotted with a beer in hand on Bourbon Street. After all, his 1996 rehabilitation from a Vicodin addiction had been public knowledge. Reports had Favre dry heaving before the game, which Favre attributed to nerves. He threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns while running for another score in the Packs' comfortable win.


13. In the biggest AWOL incident since Stanley Wilson, Raiders' Pro Bowl center Barret Robbins went missing in Tijuana the day before Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego.


Robbins, who would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, told his wife he'd stopped taking his medication for depression. He said he thought the Raiders had won the Super Bowl and that he was in Tijuana celebrating the victory.

He was left off the active roster. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Raiders, 48-21.

14. After the Redskins lost Super Bowl VII, Washington's Roosevelt Taylor blamed head coach George Allen for his strict, buttoned-down approach.

"He screwed up the whole damned week," Taylor said. "We got there being confined by curfew one night a week during the season. We get out there, and there's curfew every night. We had to eat every meal together, you went to practice together, to the press conferences together.

"George really hated Los Angeles. He got that from George Halas. Halas used to call L.A. the 'sex-pool' of America. George believed it too. So the whole week became a boring thing. Even though we worked hard, the boredom carried over to the game. ... It sure didn't help us."

In 1969, Allen, as head coach of the L.A. Rams, hired the first-ever special teams coach in the NFL.

His name?

Dick Vermeil.

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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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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