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"Say It Ain't So, Joe"

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“Say It Ain't So, Joe”
Written by Murray Head (1975)
Performed by Murray Head

The Music

In 1973, British singer-songwriter-actor Murray Head saw a documentary about Richard Nixon, who was then months away from his post-Watergate resignation. Head was struck by a moment in the film when an editor of a small town newspaper was talking about his readers who still supported the president despite so much condemning evidence. The editor compared Nixon's situation to that of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the famous baseball player who was banned from the Majors after being accused of taking a bribe to throw the 1919 World Series.

Legend goes that after Jackson was banned, a young fan approached him and said, “Say it ain't so, Joe.” Head borrowed that  phrase for the title of a beautifully yearning ballad that was later covered by Roger Daltrey of The Who. In 2013, Head hit the charts a second time with a re-recorded version of the song.

Here's his original 1975 recording:

The History

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Born in 1888 to a poor South Carolina family, Joseph Jefferson Jackson fell in love with baseball at a young age. His natural gifts for the game were such that by the time he was thirteen, he was playing on a local team alongside men twice his age. Joe could throw a ball over 300 feet. He could make spectacular diving catches in the field. And he could hit anything that was thrown at him, and hit it far.

In 1908, Joe started playing semi-pro ball with the Greenville Spinners. During a double-header, he was wearing a new pair of spiked shoes that wore painful blisters on his heels. In the second game, he took them off. The story goes that after he hit a triple and pulled into third base in his bare feet, someone in the stands yelled, “You shoeless son-of-a-gun!” Though that was the only time Jackson ever played a game without shoes, the nickname stuck.

Dirty Socks

Later that year, Jackson started playing in the majors, first with the Philadelphia Athletics, then with the Cleveland Naps. In 1910, he batted .408, the highest average ever for a rookie. In 1915, he was dealt to the Chicago White Sox.

As depicted in the acclaimed film Eight Men Out, the White Sox were one of the best teams in baseball. But they were also saddled with a tyrannical and miserly general manager named Charles Comiskey. A former ball player himself, Comiskey was credited with being the first person to train players to change their field positions according to a batter's hitting habits. But as a manager, he underpaid his players and cut corners in every aspect of running the franchise. When Comiskey decided to save money by reducing the number of times uniforms were laundered each week, his team got the nickname “Black Sox.”

Of course, baseball in 1919 was nothing like it is today, with free agents and million dollar contracts. Players had what was called a “reserve clause” in their contracts that prevented them from changing teams without the permission of the owners. Further, there was no union to protect players' interests. For all that, Comiskey wasn't much worse than any other general manager. But his abrasive personality rubbed his players the wrong way. And their bitterness towards him set the stage for what happened in the World Series.

So too did the dissension in the ranks of the White Sox. The team was divided into two opposing factions—one led by second baseman Eddie Collins, the other by first baseman Chick Gandil. Collins' guys were more educated and sophisticated and had negotiated higher salaries for themselves. Gandil's were less polished, and underpaid.

It was Gandil who reportedly approached a gambler named Joe Sullivan about the idea of fixing the Series. Sullivan was connected with several gangsters in Chicago. The set-up was that each player would receive $10,000 for giving less than their best over the first three games. It guaranteed that the White Sox would lose to the Reds. Gandil, who was 33 years old and ready to retire, saw this as a way to get out of the game with some big money.

Dirty Stakes

Gambling had been part of major league baseball since its beginnings in the 1860s. And Chicago being a hotbed of organized crime, there were certainly plenty of hustlers skirting around the White Sox organization. Comiskey had even posted signs in his stadium that said, “No Betting In This Ball Park.”

Gandil recruited at least seven teammates to join him in the fix. And this brings us back to Shoeless Joe Jackson. When he was approached by Gandil—and according to later testimony—Jackson was promised $20,000 to participate. He agreed to take the money, once he was convinced that all his teammates were on board. After the fourth game, Jackson received an envelope with $5000. He felt that the players were being double-crossed by the gamblers, and refused to take the envelope. He told Gandil, “Somebody is getting a little jazz, everybody is crossed.” Despite the fact that Jackson had initially agreed to be part of the fix, he did not personally throw any of the games. In fact, he batted .375 with twelve hits in the series, and committed no errors in the field. But his association with the other players who did throw their games would permanently taint his reputation in baseball.

Three Strikes, You're Out

In 1921, eight members of the White Sox stood trial and were acquitted of wrongdoing. But soon after, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned the same players from the Majors for life.

For the next 20 years, Joe Jackson played semi-pro ball, sometimes under an assumed name. Eventually, he and his wife settled back in his hometown of Greenville, where Jackson ran a barbecue restaurant and a liquor store. On the side, he coached kids' baseball teams.

Jackson died of a heart attack in 1951, at age 64.

Over the years, there have been countless fans who've lobbied for Jackson's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1999, MLB commissioner Bud Selig said that Jackson's case was under review. But there has been no further action or comment.

Towards the end of his life, Jackson said, “Regardless of what anybody says, I was innocent of any wrong-doing. I gave baseball all I had. The Supreme Being is the only one to whom I’ve got to answer. If I had been out there booting balls and looking foolish at bat against the Reds, there might have been some grounds for suspicion. I think my record in the 1919 World Series will stand up against that of any other man in that Series or any other World Series in all history.”

See all installments of our Music History series here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
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.